Feb 4, 2021 - Science

Personal stories have power in political arguments — and pitfalls

Illustration of a heart and brain overlapping to create a venn diagram
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Personal experiences — more than cold, hard facts — may be a way to bridge the moral and political divides that have fractured so many families and friendships. But that same cognitive tug can also be leveraged to fuel misinformation.

Why it matters: Personal stories, especially those about experiences of harm, may establish common ground among people who don't agree on politics, according to a new study. But they are a powerful driver of what we perceive as true and can be misinterpreted or misused, experts warn.

Details: In the first experiments in a series of 15 studies, Kurt Gray, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina, and a team of researchers found that when people were asked to imagine interacting with someone who had a different political view, they rated opponents who presented facts as more rational than those whose arguments were based on personal experience.

But when the researchers analyzed on-the-street conversations about gun policy, political pundits talking on CNN or Fox News, and other real-world interactions, they found personal experiences are actually more powerful than facts in political debates.

  • People were more likely to see someone they disagreed with as rational — and therefore respected them and were more likely to interact with them — if their stances were rooted in personal stories versus laying out a fact-based argument.
  • And personal, relevant experiences in which an opponent had experienced harm were most likely to foster respect compared to a personal experience where someone wasn't harmed or suffering, they report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What they're saying: The findings provide a first step to have more productive conversations with people who, for example, engage in conspiracy theories, says Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University who wasn't involved in the study.

The big question: Does hearing someone's personal experience persuade us to change our beliefs or behaviors?

  • The new study doesn't tackle that, but Gray suggests, "If we want to get people to work together, maybe we want to have common understanding through personal experience and then get to the facts."
  • "Experiences are real and powerful, but I don’t think we should take them as the basis of policy," says Gray.

But whereas facts can be effective at persuading people outside the realm of politics, Van Bavel says, when it comes to issues of morality and identity, the cognitive cards may be stacked against them.

  • Offering someone facts even after leading with a personal story may not be as effective as a story alone, says Annie Duke, who studies decision science.
  • In a 2016 study, researchers found people were less likely to donate money to a hypothetical charity when the appeal involved both a story about a particular child and statistical information about the scope and nature of the problem, compared to when either was presented alone.
  • The power of the so-called identifiable victim effect suggests facts can "neutralize the impact of story, reducing respect and perceived rationality," Duke, Van Bavel and their colleagues write in a commentary about the new research from Gray's team.

The big picture: "Facts aren’t true in the same way that personal experiences are true," says Gray. Facts can be countered and reframed with other facts, but "the more powerful truth is our lived truth and we appreciate that in others as well," he says.

  • Personal narratives, particularly ones of personal harm, can't be denied and are activating, Duke says, pointing to the spread of moralized content on social media.
  • That's a strength of human cognition that supports our empathy and social behavior.

Yes, but: It is also a big weakness, Duke says.

  • "Personal experiences are asymmetrically aligned in a way that counteracts facts. You are at a huge disadvantage in fighting those narratives," Van Bavel says.
  • Data and facts are the counter-narrative to anecdotes and can be discussed and debated in creating policies, but the new study implies "a personal story that is false will have more power to create respect than facts, including those facts that would serve to correct the narrative," Van Bavel and Duke write.

What to watch: Data demonstrating the benefits and safety of vaccination already face a foe in narratives of harm from vaccines, potentially jeopardizing the effort to reach herd immunity to COVID-19, Van Bavel says.

  • In a post-truth era, it's critical to learn how to communicate across political divides and how to do so effectively without weaponizing misinformation, he and Duke write.
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