You can change how people behave when you appeal to their values.

My wife and I recently had one of those nature vs. nurture discussions. I had read an essay in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine, titled, “Why Do Many People Doubt Science?”. The author, the science writer Joel Achenbach, says that people use facts to reinforce beliefs that are actually shaped by their worldview. In other words, our values influence us more than scientific facts do.

As a communicator, I agreed with Achenbach. But that got my spouse, a public school teacher, going. Wasn’t this a deterministic perspective that gave little credit for how learning can open minds?

Take global climate change. It turns out that plenty of educated people deny climate change even though they know the facts. In one study the author cites, higher rates of science literacy correlated with stronger views, pro and con, at both ends of the spectrum. “Science literacy promoted polarization on climate, not consensus,” Achenbach says.

And personally, as much as I don’t want to cop to it – even as a former reporter – there are times when my head tells me one thing but my heart, and what I want to believe, influence me more.

Voting with our tribe

In May 2013, Portlanders rejected (for the fourth time since 1956) a proposal to fluoridate the city’s water supply, even though, as Scientific American pointed out, water fluoridation has been rigorously tested and proved safe for 65 years.

And in November 2014, Oregon voters narrowly defeated a measure that would have required labeling of genetically modified food packaging.

I voted yes for fluoridation. I was swayed by the scientific argument and I didn’t have that much at stake emotionally.

But I voted for GMO labeling, even though there’s little proof that GMO foods are harmful. (Read Michael Specter’s piece in the New Yorker, Seeds of Doubt, for an eye-opening story.) But my vote for GMO labeling was admittedly a vote against big, bad Monsanto, the GMO purveyors, as I suspect it was for many others who also voted yes.

So why do people believe what they want to believe? Why do educated people believe vaccines cause autism? The answer gets to the core of our identities. The author of the study cited by Achenbach says that, when we argue about climate change, we’re really arguing about “who we are, what our crowd is.”

Values trump science

“We never left high school,” Marcia McNutt told Achenbacher. “People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science.”

My teacher wife often jokes that we live in a middle-school nation, where adults still act like adolescents vying for attention, power and control. So she nods when she hears that researcher saying our biggest motivation for what we believe is the desire to fit in with the crowd.

But why bother to teach kids science if they’re just going to let their peer group decide for them – even when they become adults?

And as communicators, educators or marketers, how can we possibly change hearts and minds if people don’t share our values?

The answer to the education question is to do a better job of teaching scientific thinking, the researcher McNutt told Achenbach. Science isn’t just facts; it’s a method of arriving at the truth.

Persuasion requires knowing your audience

Changing hearts and minds requires knowing your audience. Understand not just their demographic profile, but their value set. And then appeal to them based on those values. It’s why sometimes the best argument for adopting sustainable practices is about saving green money rather than the planet.

Back to the discussion with my wife about education. It turns out she’s right. You can get kids to change their minds. All you have to do is make learning cool. If any teacher knows how to do that, they should get a raise.