Brass Monkeys Hear No Evil: The value of listening to both sides

By Andy Bobrow

Here in Franklin and in the surrounding counties, contentious issues are being debated, and the outcome of these debates will have a profound impact on the quality of life in our communities for decades to come. Whether or not to permit gas production by hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale is one of these issues.

Another is the proposed construction of the Constitution Pipeline through the area. Both of these projects have sharply divided the region. Mirroring the polarized political climate of the nation as a whole, these debates are being driven by those with the strongest – and most divergent – opinions.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

As concerned citizens, many of us are opposed to hydrofracking in the region and do not believe that the proposed pipeline serves the interests of those who live on its path. There are strong arguments to buttress our positions and we feel it crucial to press the fight to persuade our fellow citizens.

However, there are other citizens who believe that the potential economic benefits of these projects – to individuals, if not to the region as a whole – are powerful arguments in their favor. If we want to change the opinions of those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that their own economic wellbeing is aligned with either the pipeline or fracking, we need to understand their reasoning.

Everybody is familiar with the classic image of the three “wise” monkeys — see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. But living in the real world means seeing and hearing things we would perhaps prefer to ignore, and occasionally saying things that others may prefer not to hear. Not listening to those with whom we disagree will not keep them from spreading their message. More important, it leaves us without the tools to refute their arguments or persuade them to change.

Persuasion is, after all, not something you do to people but something you do with them. It is a conversation, not a monologue. Arguments are not won by shutting down those with whom you disagree. They are won by changing minds.

Social judgment theory is one way that social psychologists explain how this process of persuasion works. The theory asserts that opinions and attitudes are rarely changed dramatically or instantaneously. Instead, persuasion is an incremental process.

People tend to compare what they hear or read about an issue to what they already believe, their “anchor” position. Arrayed around the anchor position are “latitudes” of acceptance, rejection, and non-commitment. The latitude of acceptance is the range of positions that are most likely to be welcomed or accepted. The latitude of non-commitment consists of positions about which an individual is neutral and the latitude of rejection is, not unexpectedly, those positions that an individual disagrees with most strongly. All of us tend to locate information within one of these latitudes when we receive it. Similarly, people tend to distort incoming information based on the anchor position they hold on that issue, what some like to call the “Fox News effect.”

So, for those of us who are trying to sway public opinion, what are the implications of this principle and how can we apply it to make our arguments resonate more strongly?
Quite simply, if you advocate positions that fall into the latitudes of rejection of your intended audience, you are not going to be persuasive. And one way we can determine just where these latitudes might fall is to listen to their arguments.

Our best chance of changing someone’s opinion, then, would be to advocate a position that falls within the latitude of non-commitment — even if it isn’t where you ultimately want them to end up. If you are coming from a position in the latitude of rejection, you won’t get too far, and might even cause them to cling to their anchor position more strongly. This means that persuasion takes place in a series of small movements. As we shift their anchor position ever so slightly, we are also shifting their latitudes of non-commitment and acceptance ever so slightly, which means that they will be a little more receptive to our next round of persuasion. The idea is to get people to open up to new ideas rather than cling to their preconceptions.

It is much easier to get someone to agree with you if they have already agreed with you on another point, so you can develop a pattern of “yes” responses. In effect, they get into the habit of agreeing with you. In our case, we might need to find another issue – separate perhaps from the pipeline or fracking and within their latitudes of non-commitment– upon which we can find a point of agreement. Our best chance to find that space is to start hearing them out.

Andy Bobrow is an assistant professor in the School of Media Studies at New School University and a lecturer at SUNY Oneonta.