The Power of Fact in a ‘Post-Truth’ World
By Nat Kendall-Taylor, CEO of the FrameWorks Institute
Conventional wisdom has it that we now live in a “post-truth” world where opinion is more powerful than fact—or at least that we’re heading in that direction. To explain this phenomenon, major news organizations are running pieces about our cognitive inability to separate fact from fiction and our ability—or seeming willingness, even—to delude ourselves on a collective level. At the same time, advocates are emphasizing the importance of facts and news organizations are running advertising campaigns about the value of truth. As a New York Times ad declares: “The truth is more important than ever.”
So, which is it: Do facts change minds, or not? We tend to think of this questions in simple terms: They either do affect how people think and act—or they don’t. The truth, however, is somewhere in between. Our research shows that facts do matter and that they do have persuasive power—but only if they are well framed.
At the FrameWorks Institute, we study how nonprofit organizations can frame messages to communicate effectively with the public. Facts are an important part of our work. Over nearly two decades, we have found time and again—on a wide variety of social issues—that facts on their own are not effective communications devices. When used in isolation, they do not cause people to change their attitudes and beliefs about social issues or motivate them to take steps to make change.
When researching how to frame immigration, for example, we found that the facts that advocates typically use to educate the public about the effects of immigration on our economy and on human rights did not change people’s opinions about reform or elevate their support for it. In fact, these facts tended to have the opposite effect, increasing negative attitudes toward immigrants among participants across the political spectrum and reducing support for progressive reform policies.
The same basic finding played out in our research on criminal justice and child abuse. Communicating facts about racial disparities and inequity did not cause respondents to support policies that address these issues. Pointing to facts about the prevalence of child abuse in the United Kingdom, meanwhile, sapped support for policies to reduce it.
This is not to say that facts don’t matter. They do—so long as they are effectively framed.
In the same experiment about justice, we found that framing facts about racial disparities and inequity around the value of pragmatism—that we can and must find solutions that work to align the justice system with the outcomes we want it to achieve—did cause people to change their attitudes about the justice system and increased support for reform. We found a similar effect in messages that followed facts about the prevalence of child abuse with robust discussions of solutions. When paired with solutions, facts boosted engagement and support for evidence-based programs and policies to reduce child abuse.
Why aren’t facts effective on their own? Because they don’t interrupt our thinking. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, explains that people process facts through “System 1” thinking: the fast and semi-automatic way that the brain takes in and makes sense of information. The brain tends to fit unframed facts into existing, off-the-shelf, ways of thinking.
Framing facts around values, solutions, or other frame elements, however, can disrupt System 1 thinking and push people into “System 2” thinking, a more effortful and conscious way of thinking in which people consider new information, evaluate their opinions, and reassess support for solutions. If advocates communicate “just the facts,” the public will likely default to “System 1” thinking—and people won’t change the way they think about or engage with issues.
Frames also help people understand the size and scope of a problem and focus on solutions. When presented with facts alone, people tend to get “compassion fatigue” and suffer from “emergency inflation.” This is why frames that emphasize our collective ability to solve difficult problems—our efficacy—are so important. Our research into criminal justice and child abuse showed that facts framed around efficacy boosted support for policy solutions.
The truth is we’re not in a post-truth world. Facts matter. They always have and they always will. And, when nonprofits frame them well, they can change public thinking, political discourse, our culture, and our society.
Nat Kendall-Taylor is CEO of the FrameWorks Institute, a communications think tank in Washington, D.C.