Advocates of immigrant rights decry working in what feels like the age of the fact-free debate. A debate driven in large part by leaders willing to cherry-pick facts on immigration that encourage division and sacrifice solutions. Yet, all of us have a role to play in improving the nature of the public debate on immigration. In fact, if we want to truly engage in more meaningful communication in the immigration space, we must take the time to better understand our audience—as well as examine our own prejudices. People are not blank slates passively waiting to receive our messages the way we intend.

Rather, individuals use different types of logic or reasoning systems to process information, and those systems are shaped by the multiple social and cultural settings they are part of. In other words, we are all veteran perceivers of information and we take in knowledge each day through preexisting lenses made up of the values, social norms, and biases we’ve gathered over a lifetime.

Our new environment demands that we gain a deeper understanding of the psychology and social dynamics that underlie human decision-making. How do individuals understand what we are saying to them? What existing beliefs and values is our message up against?

To help take on this new challenge, the Migration Policy Institutes offers a refreshing new report, Why the Facts Don’t Matter: How to Communicate More Effectively on Immigration’s Costs and Benefits. The author, Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan explains why facts alone are not persuasive and what other social and cognitive barriers get in the way of our messages.

She puts it simply:

“fundamental elements of human nature lead people to resist information that contradicts their existing beliefs or personal experiences. Psychologists have long known that people are not purely rational but instead engage in what is known as motivated reasoning—a process by which information is molded to fit their existing views and the values of the group(s) they identify with (whether this is national political party, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or religion, among others). Information contradicting an individual’s sense of self or group identity is often rejected more forcefully than other data, regardless of the evidence backing it up.”

She also cautions us against doubling down on the facts, which many are doing in the era of Trump. She warns:

“Focusing solely on supplying alternate information without accounting for how people absorb, process, and remember it is therefore not an effective tool for countering misinformation. Policymakers, media professionals, and other stakeholders concerned with communicating more effectively about complex policy topics may wish to anchor their strategy in a deeper understanding of two things: how human brains absorb and retain information, and the circumstances under which publics are more likely to believe messages on controversial issues.”

She also cautions against using economic arguments alone to make the case for immigration reform.  She writes “messages that appeal to people’s morals may be more likely to succeed than those based solely on economics.”

Banulescu-Bogdan also suggests avoiding personal attacks (which usually causes those feeling so to double down on their existing views), avoid repeating myths and false claims (it actually reinforces them), and finding messengers with credibility among your target audience.

This report supplies some critically-needed and enlightening advice for the immigration rights movement. Our strength is in supplying the facts and understanding of immigration policy better than anyone however, we must begin to understand better the publics we seek to reach, the values they hold, and where the openings are for advancing our issue.

Photo by Didriks