Dealing with Inflexible Opposition

Sometimes we have to negotiate with people who stubbornly stick to obviously false propositions. Recent research suggests a way to influence some who seem impervious to facts.

Conspiracy theorists have over the years proved remarkably hard to persuade (by the way, the percent of people who believe in conspiracy theories has not changed much in the last decade). Thomas Costello at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted an experiment with 2,190 self-described believers in various conspiracy theories, as reported in the respected British magazine New Scientist (Chatbots can persuade conspiracy theorists their view might be wrong). They found these people largely unmoved by emotional appeals (“how can you believe that nonsense?”). Engagement with information was also tricky, because many of the conspiracy theorists had read deeply about the subject at hand, even if what they read was unfounded and transparently wrong.

The MIT team’s approach was to place them in a conversation with the artificially intelligent GPT-4 Turbo large language model. Before starting, the participants outlined the case for the theory to which they subscribed. In the chat, the AI presented a summary of the conspiracy theory and asked the participants what confidence they placed in it being true. Then the AI and the conspiracy theorists each offered three contributions about that theory. The AI avoided loaded language: it presented rigorous fact-based arguments backed up with large volumes of information. Afterwards, people were asked to once again rate their level of confidence in the conspiracy theory. Overall, belief in the conspiracy theory dropped 20% – not a huge number, but better than anything else tried. Plus the effect lasted when polled again two months later, suggesting people had changed their minds.

The lesson for negotiators is: when faced with inflexible opposition that flies in the face of all facts, carefully limit your presentation to the main issue in dispute, marshall lots and lots of facts, and avoid any emotion. Also, temper your expectations about what constitutes success: much of the time, you will not get very far, but this approach offers your best chance. If you do get an opening, we at Mobus Creative Negotiating offer a host of suggestions about what you can propose that might attract the other side.