Build and Construct - John C. Wunsch, P.C.
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Build and Construct

You have a message to convey to others. Your task is to persuade. Persuasion in this context can be defined as a method to change not only beliefs, but the way others arrive at their beliefs. Once others can be shown a better path of reasoning, then the conclusion you seek to draw might more easily follow. The thought here is to suggest a method where old patterns can be disrupted. Moving to disrupt, however, is a tightrope balancing act between recognition how entrenched deep-seated beliefs can become and communication of a message which somehow can slip through the cracks and begin the painstaking work of changing beliefs.

It is likely insufficient to counter the persuasive rhetorical appeals in anti-vaccine messages by using mere factual refutational strategies. In line with this argument, healthcare providers report that the most effective way to convince vaccine-skeptical parents is to share their personal vaccine choices for their own children and their personal experiences with vaccine safety. Consequently, storytelling is proposed as a potentially effective narrative intervention to improve evidence-based communication and stimulate immunization.

Storytelling which describes personal choices, experiences, and outcomes, not facts or statistics, can at times be effective to get others thinking about an alternative reality outside of their own belief system, but it’s not a complete solution. Persuading those who are like minded. The thought is simply to guide––not push or force––those beliefs in the direction they’re already moving. Persuading those who are opposed. We recognize that we are communicating with a person (or group of persons) who may hold a contrary idea. We can ignore it, we can address it––or we can somehow try to reconceptualize it.

Narratives could help prevent the audience from reacting negatively to messages about a controversial topic. Stories about personal experiences are more readily digestible than argumentative, generic expositions and therefore pose fewer obstacles for a broad audience, including people with high and low reading and health literacy skills. In the context of health communication, a message is considered a narrative if it has an identifiable structure from start to finish, between which a situation unfolds, events take place, and a problem is addressed. It is also typical that a character—often an “I”-narrator—experiences the events and describes them from her or his own perspective. When readers (or listeners, viewers) are “transported” into the story, they are neither motivated nor able to properly perceive any guiding and moralizing intentions of the narrative. Additionally, recognizable story characters with comprehensible goals and achievable solutions can be relevant role models for their target group and arouse interest through specific story details that lead to deeper processing.

“Start with the fundamentals upon which everyone can agree.” “Dial it down, initially.” “At first, maintain a tone of reasonableness. Only later, once others are convinced of the fairness of your judgment, can you move on to more controversial positions.” “One’s pitch, volume, and tone matter. Stay away from that which can antagonize or trigger others.” “Build and construct, floor by floor, room by room, and don’t skip steps––no shortcuts.” Such advice we’ve all heard before.

But the missing ingredient? Perhaps the most common mistake is underestimating the lengths others will go to justify their positions, what psychologists call “belief perseverance.” “Belief perseverance (also known as conceptual conservatism) is maintaining a belief despite new information that firmly contradicts it. Such beliefs may even be strengthened when others attempt to present evidence debunking them, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect (compare boomerang effect). For example, in an 2014 article in The Atlantic, journalist Cari Romm describes a study involving vaccination hesitancy. In the study, the subjects expressed their concerns of the side effects of flu shots. After being told that the vaccination was completely safe, they became even less eager to accept them. This new knowledge pushed them to distrust the vaccine even more, reinforcing the idea that they already had before.” Belief Perseverance, Wikipedia, https://en. Belief_perseverance.

Experimental studies investigating the persuasive effects of pro- and anti-vaccination narratives so far show mixed evidence. On the one hand, evidence suggests that personal vaccination narratives are persuasive. For instance, research shows that samples of various individual vaccination narratives describing vaccine adverse events affect people’s risk perceptions and vaccination intentions. Also, personal narratives promoting adult vaccinations have more impact on people’s risk perceptions and intentions to vaccinate than objective statistics promoting vaccination. On the other hand, evidence indicates that vaccination narratives are not necessarily more persuasive. For instance, studies on science-based vaccination narratives show that narratives aimed at correcting misinformation do not work or can even backfire. Yet other research suggests that combining narrative with statistical evidence in pro- vaccination messages has a greater impact on risk perceptions and intentions than messages presenting either narrative or statistical evidence.

Emerson had this say on the subject:

“In the pulpit at Waltham, I felt that the composition of his audience was not of importance to him who possessed true eloquence. Smooth or rugged, good natured or ill natured, religious or scoffers, he takes them all as they come, he proceeds in the faith that all differences are superficial, that they have one fundamental nature which he knows how to address. This is to be eloquent. And having this skill to speak to their pervading soul he can make them smooth or rugged, good-natured or ill natured, saints or scoffers at his will. Eloquence always tyrannical never complaisant or convertible.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Journals 1820-1842 (Pg. 482)(Lawrence Rosenwald, Editor)(The Library of America 2010)

Those who try lawsuits worry about the composition of their juries. Too “conservative” versus too “liberal.” What if it were possible to move beyond such methods? Calling out to the “fundamental nature” of a group to reach their “pervading soul” is a way of surpassing the tidal push and pull of a momentary fad, novelty, or custom. It’s a way of shaping phraseology to move past barriers and roadblocks. “He proceeds in the faith that all differences are superficial, that they have one fundamental nature which he knows how to address”––perhaps a good starting point therefore is simply to ask: what set of beliefs will most likely be accepted by everyone? And from there: which of those beliefs will be most closely aligned to that which I seek to persuade?

Quotations from Lisa Vandeberg, Corine Meppelink, Jose Sanders, Marieke Fransen, Facts Tell, Stories Sell? Assessing the Availability Heuristic and Resistance as Cognitive Mechanisms Underlying the Persuasive Effects of Vaccination Narratives, Front. Psychol. 07 March 2022