Attitude Roots and Jiu Jitsu Persuasion: Understanding and Overcoming the Motivated Rejection of Science

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There is a worryingly large chasm between scientific consensus and popular opinion. Roughly one third of Americans are skeptical that humans are primarily responsible for climate change; rates of some infectious diseases are climbing in the face of anti-immunization beliefs; and significant numbers of the population worldwide are antievolution creationists. It is easy to assume that resistance to an evidence-based message is a result of ignorance or failure to grasp evidence (the “deficit model” of science communication). But increasingly, theorists understand there are limits to this approach, and that if people are motivated to reject science, then repeating evidence will have little impact. In an effort to create a transtheoretical language for describing these underlying motivations, we introduce the notion of “attitude roots.” Attitude roots are the underlying fears, ideologies, worldviews, and identity needs that sustain and motivate specific “surface” attitudes like climate skepticism and creationism. It is the antiscience attitude that people hear and see, but it is the attitude root—what lies under the surface—that allows the surface attitudes to survive even when they are challenged by evidence. We group these attitude roots within 6 themes—worldviews, conspiratorial ideation, vested interests, personal identity expression, social identity needs, and fears and phobias—and review literature relevant to them. We then use these insights to develop a “jiu jitsu” model of persuasion that places emphasis on creating change by aligning with (rather than competing with) these attitude roots.

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