Friday, January 21st | 19 Shevat 5782

August 29, 2016 10:32 am

How to Change People’s Minds on Israel

avatar by Judith Bergman

A political argument. Photo: Wikipedia.

A political argument. Photo: Wikipedia.

Anyone who has ever tried to persuade someone to change his mind on a contentious topic on which he holds strong views — let’s say, Israel — knows that most of the time it is a frustrating and unrewarding pursuit that frequently ends in failure.

Israel advocates debate what strategies to pursue to achieve this, but the secret still appears to be as elusive as ever. No matter how many facts Israel has on its side, the “other side” still appears entirely unmoved. It goes on bashing Israel, ignoring the facts and absolving the terror-inciting Palestinian Authority and the missile-crazy, death cult-serving, terror tunnel-digging terrorists of Hamas.

We rational and thinking human beings can pull out our hair with frustration and struggle to keep our jaws in place while wondering: How on earth is it possible for anyone to claim that they care about “justice” and “human rights” while supporting such blatant terrorist criminals, who teach their own children to hate, and encourage and reward killing?

We all know the world is not fair. Jews in particular know this very well, and not being able to persuade people, let alone just leave us alone is hardly a novel development. We have dealt with that exasperating predicament for millennia and we are still here. The fact that the agenda-pushing journalists of the mainstream media, as well as the coddled, spoiled and brainwashed millennials of American college campuses, are neither willing nor able to distinguish facts from expertly peddled propaganda should not alarm us too much. This does not mean we should give up, merely that we should put things in proportion. As Jews, we have had more formidable foes. So first: A deep breath.

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Then we should recall the following, which is based on science: Trying to change someone’s mind is virtually impossible, unless the right conditions are present. This is also known as “confirmation bias,” “cognitive dissonance,” or “motivated reasoning.” Research shows that facts by themselves are meaningless to people, who will stick to their opinions no matter what, because human beings are still in some ways “primitive,” tribal beings who find it difficult to step outside their group. Furthermore, relinquishing an opinion is akin to relinquishing an inherent part of oneself and one’s self-image, and admitting that one has been wrong is a hard thing to do.

These are formidable psychological hurdles to convincing anyone that his view is wrong, even on innocent, non-political issues, such as whether chocolate is healthy or not. The hurdle is all the more enormous when debating a highly charged subject such as Israel with people who have been subjected to biased reporting in the media for decades and are conditioned to a particular view of the issue.

Research shows that these hurdles can be moved in certain conditions: When people do not feel threatened and are made to feel comfortable, they are more likely to be open to facts and to change their opinions.

Observe almost any debate on Facebook, where verbal attacks are frequent and harsh. These “debates” are probably the least conducive circumstance for any meaningful exchange of opinions; instead they become “wars,” filled with accusations and expletives.

A different tactic is needed. Studies have found that if a person is asked to remember something positive about themselves and is put at ease, that is conducive to them becoming open to the debate and to changing their minds.

Unfortunately, that strategy is not very actionable when it comes to debates on the internet, especially with complete strangers, but would certainly be useful in a face-to-face situation.

However, the strategy could indeed be slightly modified, even for internet use. The main thing appears to be to de-escalate the situation, even before it has escalated — to show that one “comes in peace” and has no threatening intentions, perhaps even to underline that both parties do indeed have something in common.

Preferably, I would argue, that commonality should be something that has nothing to do with the political issue at hand. Instead, opening an argument with pleasant chit-chat might have a soothing effect that will put an opponent at ease and open his or her mind. This naturally means that there is no point in debating the hard-core haters on the internet, those who have already been so conditioned that there is no way to break through their walls.

The above contains no panacea as to how to win someone over in an argument, but it serves to elucidate what one is up against in a debate about Israel with a political opponent. Israel advocates often debate the content of the strategy, what arguments to make, whether to use historical or legal arguments, etc. We very rarely discuss the most fundamental psychological obstacles to winning a political argument, but becoming increasingly aware of these psychological hurdles is a step on the way to that elusive formula of success.

Judith Bergman is a writer and political analyst living in Israel. This article was originally published by Israel Hayom. 

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