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How to use hope to counter fear-driven messages

Media Uncovered  |  Mar 21, 2017

The 2017 March for Humanity in Philadelphia was one of many marches spreading hope amid fear

Photo: AFSC

Research shows that hope works better than fear - or even facts.

As NPR's Shankar Vedantam reported last week on the podcast Hidden Brain, fear is a powerful messaging tool. This is something we've seen over and over again from the Trump administration: Messages about the Muslim ban, violent extremism, and immigration are just a few of the most recent examples of how fear-based messages circulate constantly. Research shows that these messages work most effectively when the listener is either 1) already stressed out and thus vulnerable to acting out of fear; or 2) if the goal of the message is to prevent people from taking action. The result? Large numbers of people supporting inhumane policies who seem like they don't respond to facts about how bad those policies are. And that's precisely because they aren't responding to facts: They are responding to the fear that they hear every day, and research shows that facts do a really bad job of changing someone's mind once they are stressed and afraid.

Fortunately, research also shows that messages framed in terms of hope, especially when coupled with messages that include positive feedback, can counter fearmongering effectively. Hope-based messages can also help people change their minds about key issues. Why? Because when people have made up their minds about an issue, they are prone to only hear facts that support their position - especially if they are already stressed and the facts they hear are framed in terms of fear. But, when people hear messages framed in terms of hope and positive feedback, they are able to digest new information in ways that can ultimately lead to a shift in perspective. Below are three tips for using this critical research to help others overcome the fear they hear every day in order to change minds and build support for humane polices and inclusive communities.

How can we use this important research to talk about the issues that matter? 

Facts matter, but values are more powerful. While statistics and facts are important, facts alone fail to change people's minds when they don't support people's pre-existing ideas about an issue - especially if people are already afraid of something, like violent extremism. Research shows that mythbusting is rarely effective at changing minds. Instead of relying on facts alone to counter fear, tell a new story about shared values. For example, instead of arguing with someone's defense of inhumane executive orders like the Muslim ban, stay focused on the impact of the ban itself and how it runs counter to core values of openness, inclusion, and diversity.

A hopeful story can effectively counter a fear-driven one. The overwhelming number of protests to the Trump administration's executive orders, staff appointments, budget proposal, and so on reflects the hope that millions of people have that things can and should be better. Drawing on this hope to tell stories about effective resistence can help counter the messages of fear that bombard us all daily in the media. Put another way: Instead of trying to just respond to fear, frame messages and stories in ways that aim to give hope to the listener.

Building empathy is key. Because fear of the unknown is strong, it can be difficult to overcome. Emotions that dehumanize others drive bigotry and support for policies that depend upon it. One experiment showed that it is possible to reduce prejudice (the kind that is so often exacerbated by fearmongering) by holding conversations, asking questions, and getting people to put themselves in other people’s shoes. By focusing on and sharing the stories of real people whose lives have been harmed by Trump’s actions, it is possible to cultivate empathy in others.

Have you ever used hope to help change someone's mind? Or maybe a hopeful story helped to change yours? Tell us about it in the comments or on Facebook.

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