Feelings Don't Care About Your Facts: How The Right Mastered The Art Of Losing

By Jaimee Marshall··  9 min read
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Facts don’t care about your feelings – at least that’s what popular conservative political commentators like Ben Shapiro would have you believe.

“Facts don’t care about your feelings” has become the rallying cry of the modern conservative movement, as well as many in the so-called intellectual dark web, but just how effective is it, really? I have to admit, as someone who used to be considerably liberal when I was younger, the “hard facts” are what convinced me to change positions on a variety of issues. 

When presented with new evidence, I realized I was wrong. Imagine my surprise, then, when I tried to use the same approach to help others see the light on issues such as the gender wage gap, claims of rape culture, police brutality, and other issues. Turns out, shouting “facts don’t care about your feelings” endlessly into the void often does little to change the culture. After all, if simply presenting data was all it took to change people’s positions, then why are we so politically divided? Shouldn’t everyone take a look at the data and come away with the same conclusions?

As Brooke Conrad wrote in an article about why conservatives should tell more stories, “Facts are facts, regardless of a person’s feelings. But feelings don’t care about your facts either, and everyday conversation between liberals and conservatives proves the futility of facts as a persuasive tool.”

No One Care about Facts in Isolation

If you’re someone, like me, who has fallen into the trap of uttering the slogan “facts don’t care about your feelings” to others thinking you’ve owned them, really sit down and ask yourself if you care about facts in themselves. A fact doesn’t necessarily tell us why we should care about it, and there are plenty of irrational behaviors humans engage in despite knowing they factually don’t make any sense.

A large proportion of marriages fail, the children we bring into the world will one day die, we have a better chance of being struck by lightning than winning the lottery, cigarettes cause cancer, and most creative careers are almost impossible to monetize. Does this stop people from marrying the person they love, giving birth to a child, playing the lottery, smoking a cigarette, or pursuing a career as an artist or musician? No. In fact, people engage in these behaviors in spite of these facts, which tells us there are human desires, urges, and values that are given greater importance than facts. 

There are human desires, urges, and values that are given greater importance than facts. 

Consider the trolley problem. It’s an ethical thought experiment that poses a scenario where a train is heading directly toward five people who are tied down to the tracks. Meanwhile, one person is tied down to a separate track. If you pull a lever, the train will change course, killing only one person. If you do nothing, five people will die. What would you do? Many people instinctively feel that pulling the lever is wrong because you are personally responsible for killing the one person tied down to the tracks, despite knowing the fact that doing nothing would result in more people dying. These feelings also obscure the reality that a person is just as responsible for the deaths of the five through inaction as they are if they personally pull the lever. Life is a series of choices, and we don’t always make decisions solely based on facts.

Why a Single Death Is a Tragedy and a Million Deaths Is a Statistic

Feelings help us react to facts. Most people aren't convinced by facts in insolation – they value facts after you demonstrate why they ought to care about them. For example, it may be true that the economy is performing positively or poorly, but I only care about the economy to the extent that it affects people. This is where conservatives fail. Saying “facts don’t care about your feelings'' neglects the importance of the presentation of your messaging and neglects the most human instinct of all – to make sense of the world through stories.

The simple truth is, most people aren't convinced by numbers until you turn those numbers into a story. As Joseph Stalin bluntly put it, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Unfortunately, this is literally true and correlates with human behavior. Studies have shown that as the number of victims rises, the less motivated we are to alleviate suffering. People are more likely to donate to causes with a single identifiable victim (a girl who needs a lung transplant) than those that affect thousands or millions of people (a charity that will feed 50,000 people). This is attributed to a phenomenon known as “the collapse of compassion.” When more people are in need of aid, empathy doesn't just level off, it outright decreases. 

Most people aren't convinced by numbers until you turn those numbers into a story. 

The Identifiable Victim Effect is a phenomenon in which people are more likely to feel empathetic and want to help when tragedies occur to a single identifiable victim rather than large and vague groups that they can’t put a face to. If I tell you to envision five cups, you can probably do that with ease. Now envision 50 cups or 500. You can probably still have a somewhat accurate representation of these numbers. Now picture 1 million cups, then 1 billion, then 1 trillion. What do you see? Whatever you see, it’s probably nothing close to an accurate visual representation of these numbers – and that’s the problem. Large numbers are impersonal. You can shout about statistics all day long, but until you present those statistics in an emotionally intelligent way, no one is going to care. 

A famous case of this happening is the viral photo of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi’s body washed ashore after a boat carrying refugees capsized in their attempt to flee their home country. This single photo tugged at the heartstrings of people all around the world, causing a huge uproar and a surge in donations to the refugee humanitarian crisis. Donations made to the Swedish Red Cross specifically intended to give aid to Syrian refugees saw a hundredfold increase in donations immediately after Aylan's photo went viral and was sustained for about five weeks. A little over a month later, donations dropped back to baseline

The Human Psychological Need To Tell Stories

As humans, we make sense of the world through stories when it comes to just about everything. We teach mathematical concepts, argue a legal case, and report the news in adherence with stories and metaphors. This is why anecdotes and personal experiences are more powerful persuasive tools. Lawyers tell two different versions of a story while a jury decides which version is the most plausible.

Leftists capitalize on storytelling, pulling at the populace’s heartstrings, and are excellent at framing. The Identifiable Victim Effect has been a useful tool in pushing support for Black Lives Matter and gun control, using a single incidence or person to push for a larger narrative. Conservatives or those who lean to the right have failed on this end, assuming people care just about facts. 

The reality is that stories are much more effective at changing hearts and minds than presenting facts. “The power of the story is that it shows rather than tells. And that is the difference between appealing to feelings and assaulting with the facts.” 

Aristotle's concepts of rhetorical proofs – ethos, logos, and pathos – were represented in a triangle to demonstrate how equally important each of these rhetorical tools is. Ethos represents an appeal to credibility, logos an appeal to logic, and pathos an appeal to emotion. Aristotle believed that a truly effective speaker would utilize all three, but conservatives tend to only value one or two (and it’s not the emotional appeal).

Facts Don’t Account for Differences in Perception

Many factors influence our political beliefs. From our upbringing and peers to our personality and genetics, how we perceive the world and make decisions is to some extent out of our control. The Big Five personality traits, which measure a person's agreeableness, extraversion, openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, and neuroticism, are great predictors of political attitudes

People who are high in openness and agreeableness are more likely to identify as liberal, while those high in conscientiousness and low in openness are almost certain to be conservative. These psychological traits are polygenetic, meaning that instead of there being a single gene that determines a trait such as extraversion, thousands of genes work together to influence this trait. Twin studies have demonstrated that the heritability of personality traits is about 50/50.

Certain personality traits increase the likelihood of someone being politically liberal or conservative.

When riddling off facts to our opponent, ask yourself if you’re really speaking their language. The problem with using reason alone to convince someone of your position is that everyone already has firmly held beliefs and is convinced that their position is based on reason and rationality. We all interpret the world in different ways, filter out the things that don’t already align with our worldview, and most of this is out of our control. 

The Demonization of the Arts

It’s no secret that most institutions are run by liberals. Not just in Hollywood, but our public schools, corporations, and politicians are all overwhelmingly liberal. A key reason for this is that facts don’t win hearts and minds, but art does. People are largely influenced by the people whom they like and admire – those they find funny, entertaining, and talented. People are moved by art, whether it be on a canvas, in a film, or in a piece of music. The arts and humanities are overwhelmingly left-leaning, and that’s no coincidence, as conservatives are less creative by temperament (low in trait openness to experience). 

However, conservatives aren’t just underrepresented in the arts – they demonize them. They mock liberals who pursue degrees and careers that aren’t considered lucrative but may make them happy. They laugh at pieces of art they may not understand, and tell celebrities they shouldn’t use their platform to speak about issues that are important to them. Many on the right don’t see the value in the arts and humanities. So they don’t truly engage with art, or produce it, which means they don’t truly engage with culture on the ground level – where the culture is primarily influenced. 

Closing Thoughts

Considering that the current approach doesn’t seem to be working, that humans use stories to make sense of the world, and don’t care about facts in isolation, perhaps it’s time conservatives stop posting YouTube compilations of them “destroying” liberals and start creating their own stories.

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