(The Process For) How We Change Our Minds: SOTU Edition

Yesterday we applied David McRaney’s “opinion digestive system” to how we process facts, other information, and potentially even change our minds. Last night’s State of the Union (SOTU) gives us a live example to analyze.

Before we dive in, here’s your disclaimer: for this analysis, we don’t care about political opinion. We are going to attempt to remove bias and focus on the process. We realize Trump can be divisive, but that’s also what makes using his speech so interesting.

President Trump’s first SOTU appeared to be an attempt to make a broader appeal than what we saw from him at his inaugural address. Let’s create a stereotypical anti-Trump character that this speech would have been intended to convert into at least less-anti: imagine a suburban, New England, middle-class soccer mom. Let’s name her Ginger (hopefully the name is uncommon enough, but clearly, she is fictitious).

Recall McRaney’s opinion digestive system order. It says we process information from shared cultural norms, to values, to attitudes, to beliefs, and then find the facts that support our story.

From Ginger’s perspective: she lives in blue-state suburbia (cultural norms), she sees her community as open and diverse (values), she is concerned about Trump’s immigration policies (attitude), because she believes diversity is part of what makes her community great (beliefs), and therefore open immigration is not so bad in her experience (facts).

Imagine you are Trump (or at least his speech writer). You want to get Ginger on your side. You know (now) NOT to start with facts. As McRaney says, you don’t shove facts up the wrong end of the opinion digestive system. So where do you start? With shared norms, values, attitudes and beliefs. Critically, you don’t start with assertions or interpretations, you start with stories directly related to Ginger’s worldview. You are going to approach the entire opinion digestive system IN ORDER with the mentality of slightly tweaking the outcome. The speech is supposed to be opinion Maalox, not a complete overhaul. Remember, the goal is make Ginger less-anti.

Let’s look specifically at the point where Trump addressed the parents of two victims of immigrant gang violence, and how it compares to the map of Ginger’s system. Long Island (has to be a blue-state) high school girls (cultural norms), in a diverse and open neighborhood (values) who allowed immigrants into their schools (attitude) because it was the right thing to do (beliefs), and then were brutally murdered by some of those immigrants (facts).

Commercial break: Maalox! Fast relief of heartburn /acid indigestion / gas, available in a great tasting liquid formula.

Trump created, in a narrative format designed to appear directly relatable to Ginger’s world, a scenario where the same inputs created a different outcome. He may not have changed Ginger’s mind, but if she listened, she is likely more open to the importance of an immigration policy debate. Sharing the story was empathy-seeking by establishing commonality instead of asserting facts. Impressive.

For our purposes, just getting the door open is a big deal. In your work and life, knowing the tools to get a new perspective or thought into someone’s head can be the difference between having a chance and none at all. Charging in with facts when you haven’t established commonality is a recipe for failure. Take a lesson from McRaney and last night’s SOTU, follow the process and end on the facts. It’s effective.

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