Alan Alda has an avid interest in science and communication which he explores in the podcast, Clear and Vivid. Guests answer the same set of questions at the end of the show. “How do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?” is one of my favorites. The answers have ranged from the blunt, “That’s not right,” to the more diplomatic, “I’m curious about
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how you arrived at that conclusion”—and everything in between.
The studies on challenging inaccurate beliefs show that presenting facts often backfires. Gregory Trevors’ research concludes that if one’s identity is jeopardized by data, the priority is on preserving identity and the truth is denied. The research on personality differences between those who hold highly conservative or extremist political beliefs (compared those who are more moderate or liberal) suggests they seek those who validate their beliefs. If all one hears is an echo chamber, it’s easy to think it’s The Truth.
Steven Hassan is a former cult member of Sun Myung Moon (aka Moonies). Now a mental health counselor, he provides advice for friends and family who want to “bring back” a loved one who has adopted extremist ideology. Because direct challenge to a distorted belief produces defensiveness, Hassan’s recommendations are to listen well, paraphrase their beliefs, and ask if they can repeat your viewpoint. Be curious; ask questions with an ear to learning what they “know” and how they know it. Tell them if they’re aware of something you aren’t, you want to hear about it in case you’ve been duped. A great question is, “What actual evidence do you have besides TV or the internet?”
Having a shared history makes friends and family the best choice for supporting someone’s return to the rational world. Hassan’s counsel is to focus on the relationship, i.e., “You’ll always be my little brother and I never want to lose our connection.” Talk about what you have in common. Don’t expect that a single conversation will turn around the disinformation that was so successfully installed. Remember that the lies may now be part of their identity. Don’t engage in marathon deprogramming sessions. Maintain faith that they want a relationship with you, too—and that they also seek the truth. It’ll probably take repeated small efforts before they question what they’ve believed to be true.
If you’ve been trying to help a loved one who’s fallen for deceptions, you may have become impatient with defensiveness of conspiracies or lies. Future blogs will provide additional help as we explore what’s been learned about the many authoritarian cults that have risen—and fallen.
Have you had any experience in speaking with a friend or family member who you believe has been “brainwashed”? How did it go? Please write your comments in the box below.
Sending you appropriately physically distanced encouragement—and a reminder that the days are getting noticeably longer. Hang in there!