Strategic Communications 47: When You Might Be Wasting Your Breath

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(This is the 47th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

Whether you’re running a campaign to elect a candidate in a partisan election or developing an education and outreach program for your real estate development project, there is a point at which you might be wasting your breath among certain people.  That is, research has shown that once people make up their minds, getting them to change them is an extremely difficult task.

For example, a brain imaging study conducted by researchers at Emory University among self-described “strong” Republican and Democrat voters revealed this confirmation bias, whereby people seek out information to confirm their existing beliefs and ignore or selectively interpret inconsistent information.  In this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, subjects were asked to evaluate contradictory statements by George W. Bush and John Kerry from the 2004 presidential campaign.

While the Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as the Democrats were as critical of Bush, they were willing to overlook the inconsistent statements of their own candidates.  Researchers found that during this decision-making process the most active parts of the brain were those related to emotion, conflict resolution and moral accountability, and once a decision was reached, reward and pleasure.  However, the part of the brain associated with reasoning remained inactive.

The results of this study are consistent with Cognitive Dissonance Theory.  This theory states that when people experience incompatible beliefs, attitudes or behaviors, it creates dissonance and causes them to add to their consonant beliefs, reduce the importance of their dissonant beliefs or change their beliefs to somehow eliminate the dissonance.  The theory also argues that people will avoid dissonance through selective exposure, selective attention, selective interpretation and selective retention.

This is more evidence that after your initial attempts to engage the public, there may be people you just won’t be able to reach.  Instead, you should focus your efforts on those people who are willing to listen and interested in establishing a dialogue.  Otherwise, you might as well be talking to yourself.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email

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