Changing Minds: Logic or Empathy?

Can misinformation be best corrected by logic or by empathic interviewing?

Posted Feb 12, 2021

The world is awash with misinformation such as anti-vaccination propaganda, political conspiracy theories, and climate change denial. These views are harmful as well as false, for example when baseless rumors about vaccine problems discourage people from getting highly effective shots against COVID-19.

One model for correcting misinformation encourages critical thinking based on logic that distinguishes good inferential practices from bad ones based on fallacies and other thinking errors. On this view, misinformation can be confronted with evidence-based reasoning that will change beliefs. Unfortunately, people who are deeply misinformed are often impervious to logic.

Adam Grant suggests an alternative technique that is based on psychotherapy-inspired methods for changing beliefs and behaviors. The technique, called motivational interviewing, was developed in the 1980s to help people with alcohol problems and has since been applied to problems that include smoking and drugs. Preliminary evidence suggests that it also helps to encourage new mothers to get their children vaccinated. 

Motivational interviewing is partly based on psychotherapy in the style of Carl Rogers’ with the use of empathy and support, but differs in being short (one or two meetings) and directed at a specific goal such as controlling alcohol consumption. Here is how it could be used by an interviewer to deal with people reluctant to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

  1. Understand people’s concerns about vaccines by asking them open-ended questions and empathizing with their concerns.
  2. Be affirmative, reflective, and non-judgmental about their concerns. 
  3. Identify discrepancies between people’s current and desired behaviors such as staying healthy.  
  4. Summarize the issues and inform people while respecting their autonomy. 

This method is not guaranteed to change people’s minds but its success with many problematic behaviors suggests that it is worth trying as an antidote to misinformation.

My background in philosophy and cognitive science suggests a more aggressive logic-based method that would go like this.

  1. Point out that prejudices against vaccines are based on bad evidence.
  2. Describe the clinical trials that provide good evidence that the available vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID-19.
  3. Describe the huge costs of COVID-19 infection including more than 2 million deaths worldwide.
  4. Argue that these cost-benefit considerations make it highly rational to get vaccinated.

It is an empirical question whether this logical argument would convince as many people as motivational interviewing. But here are some theoretical reasons why I would bet on a technique that is more akin to therapy than logic.

Throwing a logical argument at people is an adversarial process designed to show that they are wrong. In contrast, motivational interviewing poses behavior change as a collaborative process. One of the major determinants of the success of psychotherapy is the establishment of an alliance between a client and a therapist. Arguing with people is likely to make them oppositional, whereas empathic interviewing encourages an alliance and increased appreciation of opposing views rather than sharp rejection. 

Use of empathy rather than cold logic gets at the emotions and motivations that are behind people’s beliefs and practices. Brains lack firewalls between cognition and emotion, and much psychological and neurological evidence supports the view that thinking intermixes thoughts and feelings. Motivational interviewing respects such mixing while pure logic dismisses it as irrational. Changing minds is as much about emotional change as it is about belief revision. 

Much research finds that a major cause of people’s acceptance of misinformation is motivated inference where people’s collection and evaluation of evidence is distorted by their personal goals. Logic has no way of disarming motivated inference, whereas motivational interviewing can identify people’s goals and help them to see how they are affecting their inferences and also to appreciate how their goals might be served by beliefs and practices that are in line with evidence. 

Unfortunately, I also see problems that suggest that motivational interviewing might not be as successful in correcting misinformation as it is in overcoming addictions. Motivational interviewing assumes that people with problems such as alcohol overconsumption have some motivation to change which makes them at least slightly ambivalent about their behavior. Empathic conversation works with their motivation and ambivalence to shift their beliefs and attitudes. But people who are dogmatically misinformed may be totally lacking in motivation to change their beliefs and their absence of ambivalence leaves no room for the interviewer to work with them. 

The best hope for changing beliefs in people who are avid anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, or climate change deniers would be to find in them some belief, attitude, or action that is incompatible with their firm convictions. This incompatibility would provide a wedge of ambivalence that could generate some internal motivation to change through cognitive dissonance. For example, if early vaccination successes in countries like Israel produce dramatic drops in the occurrence of COVID-19, then anti-vaxxers might be spurred to re-evaluate their position. Then evidence might provide some of the motivation to change, making logic and empathy collaborative rather than competitive.  

Still, alliance, emotion, and motivation might mean that motivational interviewing can do a better job of correcting misinformation than logical argument. The soft glove of empathic interviewing is more appealing than the bludgeon of logic. I hope to see experiments that examine what approaches are most effective in changing people’s minds about COVID-19 vaccines, political conspiracies, and climate change.  

References

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2012). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change. New York: Guilford Press.