Study: Personal anecdotes are more effective at bridging divides than facts

Most people believe you can win an argument with facts - but when "facts" are so often subject to doubt, are personal experiences trusted more?

Study: Personal anecdotes are more effective at bridging divides than facts
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  • A new study has found that people are more likely to get respect from others in moral and political conversations when sharing personal experiences instead of facts.
  • The research group conducted 15 separate experiments to test this theory in order to learn more about tolerance in specifically political arguments.
  • The effectiveness of facts in these conversations (even when proven true) is unclear because facts themselves are now subject to doubt, especially surrounding controversial and polarizing topics such as gun control and political beliefs.

Researchers at the University of Koblenz-Landau, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the Wharton School of Business have found that people are more likely to get respect from others in moral and political conversations when sharing personal experiences instead of facts. The research group conducted 15 separate experiments to test this theory and to learn more about tolerance in specifically political arguments.

    Use personal experience, not facts, to gain respect in a disagreement

    concept of man and woman arguing political arguments disagreement

    Do personal anecdotes mean more than facts in a world where facts can't be trusted?

    Image by ngupakarti on Adobe Stock

    According to the study, both liberals and conservatives believe that using facts in a political discussion will help foster mutual respect and understanding — however, all fifteen of these experiments (across multiple methodologies and issues) show that isn't quite true.

    These studies were conducted using topics that have proved quite polarizing in the past, such as:

    • Conversations about guns
    • Discussion over comments from YouTube videos regarding abortion opinions
    • An archive of 137 interview transcripts from Fox News and CNN

    "What would make you respect their opinion on the subject"?

    In the first study (n = 251), participants were asked to "imagine someone disagrees with you on moral issues" (abortion, for example). They were then asked, "What would make you respect their opinion on the subject"?

    Responses were then categorized into themes with a majority of respondents (55.78 percent) stating that basing one's stance on facts and statistics would increase respect, followed by basing one's stance on personal experiences (21.12 percent), followed by an understanding of mutual respect (14.34 percent).

    "When discussing political beliefs, who is more rational?"

    Next, a sample of participants (n = 859) was asked to imagine interacting with two political opponents, one who based their beliefs on facts, and one who based their beliefs on personal experiences. Participants rated their imaginary fact-based opponent as more rational than the opponent who based their stance on personal experiences. They also voted that they respected them more and wanted to interact with them more.

    A separate study from this experiment (study number four, n = 177) had participants weighing in on topics such as taxes, coal, and gun policies. They then were asked to read about individuals who disagreed with them on these subjects either due to personal experiences or factual knowledge. Participants in this study rated how rational their opponent seemed, and those who based their arguments on personal experience were perceived as more rational than those basing their opinions on factual knowledge.

    How does this translate to real-world conversations?

    This section of the experiment had 153 participants engaging in conversations on the street (with people they assumed were passersby but were actually members of the research team) about the topic of gun control. Analyses of these conversations revealed that strangers who based their stance on personal experiences were treated as more rational (and were more respected/interacted with more) by participants than those who based their stance on facts.

    Confirming the theory that even when facts are true, personal experiences garner more respect and willingness to engage in conversation.

    This experiment (n = 194) sought to reaffirm the theory that personal experiences garnered more respect while ruling out possible alternative explanations. The researchers contrasted concrete facts about gun control (taken from JustFacts.com) with personal experiences. For example, someone reading an annual report that mentions 73 percent of murders in the United States are committed with firearms (factual knowledge) versus "someone's young daughter was hit by a stray bullet" (experience-driven argument).

    This study found that these facts were rated as higher in specificity and concreteness than the personal experience, however, personal experiences gained more respect and willingness to discuss the topic.

    Facts, even when proven true, are often less respected than personal experiences.

    When imagining these different kinds of arguments, everyday Americans believe that supporting their belief with facts will lead to respect. However, the effectiveness of facts (even when proven correct) is unclear. The problem is, in the past decades, American has seen a decentralization of news and information that has allowed people to gather their "own facts." Facts themselves are now subject to doubt, especially surrounding controversial and polarizing topics.

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