Facts are the cornerstones of reality. At least, they used to be.
In today's ultra-polarized environment, however – marked by deep political divisions, heightened social tensions, and a deluge of misinformation and fake news – facts are rather less certain in people's minds than they once were.
Because of this strange ambiguity in how we now perceive 'facts', using them to support your moral or political argument about something is no longer a surefire strategy, researchers say, despite what our own intuition and logic might suggest.
Instead, if you really want to stand a chance of changing somebody's mind on a serious topic, there's something else you should be telling them: Your own personal experiences.
"Political opponents respect moral beliefs more when they are supported by personal experiences," a team, led by first author and social psychologist Emily Kubin from the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany, explains in a 2021 study.
"Furnishing perceptions of truth within moral disagreements is better accomplished by sharing subjective experiences, not by providing facts."
Relying on facts to convince those with opposing beliefs to our own has a long history, going back to the Enlightenment, and its promotion of rationality based on truth and logic. Grounding your argument in facts, once upon a time, was considered a sound way to command respect in debates, and win over opponents.
Rationality itself hasn't necessarily gone out of style, but it's become ever harder to use facts to win respect in a debate, the researchers say, given facts themselves are now so frequently debated, due to the fractured nature of today's political spectrum.
"The effectiveness of facts is unclear in concrete cases, such as when arguing with a stranger about gun rights," the researchers wrote last year. "The problem is that facts – at least today – are themselves subject to doubt, especially when they conflict with our political beliefs."
While it might seem like a paradox, the route to rediscovering perceived rationality and respect in a political or moral debate could be by sharing your own subjective experience in place of objective facts – because it's more likely to seem like a true, believable thing to the person disagreeing with you.
The finding was drawn from a broad study encompassing 15 separate experiments, in which the team measured and compared whether fact-based or experience-based strategies made moral or political viewpoints seemed more rational to participants.
Across experiments about issues such as gun control, coal mining, and abortion, involving thousands of participants – and including an analysis of over 300,000 comments on YouTube videos – the researchers found that arguments expressing relevant personal experiences won out over fact-based strategies.
"Because personal experiences are seen as truer than facts, they furnish the appearance of rationality in opponents, which in turn increases respect," the authors explained.
"We suggest that this effect is because personal experiences are unimpugnable; first-hand suffering may be relatively immune to doubt."
Amongst personal experiences, stories in which people share experience of personal harm or suffering were the most compelling in terms of garnering respect from the listener.
"What you have to do is basically invite someone to see you as a rational, feeling human being," senior researcher and social psychologist Kurt Gray from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told Inverse when the study was published.
"What people need to do is have conversations that expose their vulnerability."
Which isn't to say facts are entirely useless, with the researchers acknowledging that the most productive conversations between people with opposing viewpoints could involve a combination of both personal experiences and facts. In fact, some researchers warn it's not an either/or situation and more than one tactic is often required to change minds.
"We speculate that personal experiences might be deployed early in conversations to first build a foundation of mutual respect," the authors wrote, "and then facts could be introduced as the conversation moves to policy specifics."
Ultimately, while the researchers acknowledge their work still leaves many questions unanswered, they say their results might highlight a scalable mechanism to help bridge moral divides in what has sadly become a very fragmented 'post-truth' society.
"Our hope is that people can take the results and hopefully have more respectful conversations in an era of extreme polarization," Gray said.
The findings were reported in PNAS.
A version of this article was first published in February 2021.