Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

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.

Go deeper

Mike Allen, author of AM
3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden adviser Cedric Richmond sees first-term progress on reparations

Illustration: "Axios on HBO"

White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond told "Axios on HBO" that it's "doable" for President Biden to make first-term progress on breaking down barriers for people of color, while Congress studies reparations for slavery.

Why it matters: Biden said on the campaign trail that he supports creation of a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations — direct payments for African-Americans.

Cyber CEO: Next war will hit regular Americans online

Any future real-world conflict between the United States and an adversary like China or Russia will have direct impacts on regular Americans because of the risk of cyber attack, Kevin Mandia, CEO of cybersecurity company FireEye, tells "Axios on HBO."

What they're saying: "The next conflict where the gloves come off in cyber, the American citizen will be dragged into it, whether they want to be or not. Period."

Cedric Richmond: We won't wait on GOP for "insufficient" stimulus

Top Biden adviser Cedric Richmond told "Axios on HBO" the White House believes it has bipartisan support for a stimulus bill outside the Beltway.

  • "If our choice is to wait and go bipartisan with an insufficient package, we are not going to do that."

The big picture: The bill will likely undergo an overhaul in the Senate after House Democrats narrowly passed a stimulus bill this weekend, reports Axios' Kadia Goba.

You’ve caught up. Now what?

Sign up for Mike Allen’s daily Axios AM and PM newsletters to get smarter, faster on the news that matters.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!