It seems obvious that science- and logic-based arguments should be not only the most natural tools for promoting a scientific and logical worldview, but also the most effective ones. But guess what? They’re not.
In carrying out our secular advocacy work, most of us are guilty of the same mistake we commonly criticize others for: we’ve never bothered to look to the science, never investigated what really works and what doesn’t for persuading people to change their attitudes and behaviors. Instead, we’ve relied on assumptions or – more frequently – have never even considered the question at all.
The science is out there. Academic journals in fields like psychology, sociology, communication studies, behavioral economics, and so on are packed with study after peer-reviewed study showing that our assumptions about what drives attitude and behavior change are often incorrect. As I wrote about in my book, Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social, this has profound implications for how non-profits and activists carry out their work.
Simple things such as appealing to social norms, getting a commitment, looking attractive, getting your foot in the door with a small initial request, and so forth can make a huge difference in getting people to change their beliefs and behaviors. So some of the most powerful tools that secular advocates have for promoting a logical worldview are – at least on the surface – profoundly non-logical.
Ironically, one of the best ways to advance logic is by putting logical arguments in the back seat, giving them only a minor, support role in our advocacy work. And the secular movement isn’t the only movement for which the desired outcome and the best approach are two very different things.
After years of being pummeled in state ballot initiatives that enshrined “marriage protection” laws into state constitutions, in 2009 a few marriage equality activists decided to question the messaging they had been using to promote their cause. As The Atlantic reported, they conducted polling and focus groups to see what they were doing wrong. They found – among other things – that speaking about “rights” was not very effective for getting the fence-sitting public to support marriage equality. Painting marriage as an act of love and commitment between two people was much more effective at winning votes.
Using this new research-based approach in their communications, marriage equality activists stepped back in the ring in 2012 and won every single state-level ballot initiative on marriage equality. Of course, shifting public opinion played a big role in this abrupt turn-around as well. But given the narrow margins of victory, the shift in messaging likely played a deciding role in at least some of these state contests.
Environmental activists face the same reality. For example, countless studies have found that social norms messages – messages which basically say “lots of other people are doing this” – are often more effective than environmental messages at getting people to engage in environmentally-friendly behaviors.
Want homeowners to reduce their energy usage? One study found that promoting the environmental reasons to conserve did no good, but pointing out that neighbors were already reducing their consumption caused energy use to drop. Another study found hotel guests were more likely to re-use bath towels (and thereby reduce the amount of water and electricity needed to wash and dry them) if they saw signs that said “Most guests in this hotel re-use their bath towels” as opposed to signs that said “In order to help us protect the environment, we encourage you to please re-use your bath towels.”
While I am a longtime atheist and fan of Richard Dawkins’ writing, professionally I work in the field of farm animal advocacy. A lot of the work I do revolves around promoting a pretty simple proposition. Chickens, fish, pigs, and other animals are intelligent individuals who feel pleasure and pain. They suffer miserably on today’s farms. Meanwhile, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (not to mention several large longitudinal studies), a healthy meat-free diet extends lifespan and reduces the risk of certain diseases.
Clearly, the small benefits of eating meat (our taste buds enjoy it; it is convenient) are not worth the pain inflicted on other individuals. Ethically, and behaviorally, it should be an open and shut case. (Dawkins himself, along with other prominent atheist scholars such as Sam Harris, has publically stated that eating meat is unethical – even if he himself isn’t strong-willed enough to always avoid it.)
Yet here too, those in my field have found that focusing on logic, philosophy, and “animal rights” are not very effective at getting people to change their diet. Much more effective are pointing out the quickly growing number of vegans, vegetarians, and semi-vegetarians (U.S. meat consumption has dropped 10% in the last six years); showing how to find the many delicious meat-free options now available at grocery stores, restaurants, and fast food chains; and sharing a couple simple health tips.
The bottom line for secular advocates is this. We humans – including each of us reading this article – are not machines who base our decisions on pure logic and reason. We are driven mainly by emotions, by habit, and by other seemingly non-logical factors that are essentially mental rules of thumb that over our evolutionary history tended to benefit our survival.
This means – and the research suggests – that dispassionate logic and reasoning is not the best approach for persuading the public to live a reasoned, logical life.
Instead of just pointing for the 1,000th time to the science on climate change, we need to also look for the emotional levers that keep people clinging to denial. Instead of just pointing out the logical inconsistencies and negative consequences of religion, we need to also look for the emotional levers that lead people to release religious beliefs in favor of a more rational worldview.
What are the emotional levers to focus on in trying to move people toward atheism, science, and reason? On a general level, we know what approaches are usually helpful for getting people to change their beliefs. I discuss this at length in Change Of Heart, and sum up some of the key tools of persuasion in this video powerpoint. As you’ll see, on the surface they are decidedly non-logical.
But when it comes to the specific nuances of promoting secularism, we don’t know what works best. It doesn’t appear that much research has been done on what messages and approaches are most likely to get people to embrace, say, atheism. Here, the secular movement could really benefit from taking a page out of the playbook of the marriage equality movement. There are countless ways to point out the problems and falsity of religion, as well as the benefits of embracing a scientific worldview. Testing needs to be done to figure out which messages and what approach make people most likely to shift their beliefs.
Similarly, the rapid growth of atheism and agnosticism is very heartening – but why is it happening? Which demographic groups are most likely to go atheist or agnostic, what is causing them to change, and what are the main barriers people face in changing? Once we answer these questions, we can target our advocacy toward the audiences most likely to change, with the approaches most likely to work.
In other words, if we want to promote science and logic, we need to start doing some scientific research of our own. We need to figure out what actually works and what doesn’t for inspiring people to let go of religion and other illogical beliefs. And one thing the current research makes clear is that in our advocacy work we need to put logic in the back seat. Because when it comes to inspiring people to live logically, it is non-logical factors and non-logical arguments that are most likely to get them there.
Nick Cooney is the founder and director of The Humane League, an animal advocacy organization based in Philadelphia, PA and author of Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change. Nick has written for publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer and Z Magazine, and his advocacy work has been featured in hundreds of media outlets including Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio. He holds a degree in Non-Violence Studies from Hofstra University and formerly worked conducting nutrition education programs with the University of Pennsylvania's Urban Nutrition Initiative.