It’s been a while since the referendum now, and I’m still hearing about how thick the leave voters are and how they’ve ruined everything for the rest of us. It’s also only been since the referendum that I’ve actually become aware of The Express, a “newspaper” so aggressively misleading, incoherent and racist that it makes The Daily Mail look like The New Internationalist.

While it is true that The Express and The Daily Mail are frothing hate rags catering to people who think that immigration is the root of all their problems somehow, it isn’t true that everyone who voted leave reads them and it isn’t true that everyone who reads them is thick. They may believe things that are absolutely wrong but this is true of everyone. Jeering at someone for being stupid has never ever been a good way of winning them over to your side.

The belief that everyone who reads the hate rags and believes the stories they come out with is stupid is an example of the fundamental attribution error. Basically, we tend to explain other people’s behaviour in terms of some characteristic they have and to ignoring any situational factors which might be relevant. In this case the characteristic being used to explain why someone might blame immigration for their problems is their stupidity. This is fundamentally unhelpful as it both further alienates us from people who we disagree with and completely ignores the process by which these beliefs are maintained.

Rather than just assuming that people blame the EU/immigration/Muslims/whatever for their problems because that’s what stupid people do, let’s try to understand this as a process involving various situational factors.

Unless we have the resources, time and inclination to study an issue in depth ourselves and actually come to our opinion more or less independently we have to rely on sources of information that we think are credible. Given the effectively infinite number of issues that there are out there to understand, even if we are genuine experts in some of them, what we believe about the rest will depend on other sources of information which we think are reliable.

We all have a tendency to try to avoid cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable experience of realising that we hold a set of contradictory beliefs. So, when we are confronted with information which causes cognitive dissonance we do one of two things. Either we change our beliefs or we don’t and we reject the troubling information.

If most of the sources we regard as reliable, and these will include the media, friends, family, colleagues etc are telling us one thing then how likely is it that we are going to accept new contradictory information from a source which we don’t regard as reliable?

Not very!

The issue is, whatever beliefs we have are by definition supported by the sources of information we regard as reliable. It is incoherent to regard a source of information as reliable and simultaneously have beliefs which contradict that source. If we are presented with a source of information which we believe is reliable which supports our current beliefs, then our current beliefs are strengthened. This isn’t the same as being stupid, even if it does sometimes involve faulty reasoning along the way.

If all of the sources of information you thought were reliable were constantly telling you that the EU was the source of all your problems and that refugees were the same thing as terrorists, then you would believe it too. We are all susceptible to this, it’s classical conditioning. If every time The Express mentions the EU (or anyone remotely foreign) they accompany it with something to cause outrage and hostility then anyone who regards The Express as a reliable source of information will be conditioned to regard the EU as a source of outrage and will feel hostility to anything related to the EU (see the “Little Albert” experiment).

The way to beat this isn’t through calling anyone who reads The Express an idiot. Calling someone an idiot is just another way to make them hostile towards you (I accept that it might be extremely satisfying and I am guilty of doing it myself, but it’s not terribly productive).

It’s never going to be easy to get people to change their minds, the only thing I can think to do is to approach every interaction with the assumption that the person you are speaking to will never change their mind but that bystanders who haven’t made their minds up may also be paying attention whether you know about it or not (this is especially true on the internet where there are ALWAYS lurkers). If you handle the conversation aggressively, then bystanders will end up hostile as well as the person you are in discussion with. This is clearly counterproductive. If you handle the interaction instead in a way that attempts to be a simple friendly sharing of an alternative point of view, then you’ll both save yourself some stress by not expecting miracles and stand a much better chance of leaving your conversation partner and any bystanders with a positive impression of one or more of your points.

Dismissing leavers as just stupid rather than looking for the real causes behind their complaints was one of the factors that got us into this mess in the first place, continuing to do the same thing won’t fix it.

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