Transcript: Interview from Episode 080

This is the interview from episode 080 of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.

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Dave: I direct the Leadership LAB. Which is a very small part of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

David: The LGBT Center in Los Angeles is the largest such organization on the planet, with a budget of more than 83 million dollars a year. They have a clinic, a pharmacy, activities, support – and they mostly provide healthcare. But the the Leadership LAB is the political action arm of that center, and they take up about 1% of that budget.

Dave: Our mission is the long game. It’s really to figure out practical ways to reduce prejudice, and to not only develop best practices for doing that. But then to share those around the country, helping develop LGBT leaders, so that we can reduce prejudice and get more voters on our side.

David: In 2008, the Leadership LAB was working around the clock to stop Proposition 8, a ballot measure that threatened to make same sex marriage in California illegal. Polls showed that voters there were still evenly split. It seemed possible, though unlikely in a place like California that the vote might fail. But in the end, it did. Citizens went to the ballot box, and 52% of those who voted – voted against same sex marriage.

Dave: And the LGBT community had expected to prevail. All the polling showed that our side would prevail. The experience of LGBT people on a day to day basis in California is often very positive. ‘Cause where people live, that’s – they’ve chosen to live in places where it’s pretty positive. So it was a real shock when we lost.

David: In the aftermath, canvassers that had worked so hard to stop this outcome – wondered, what next? What can we do now?

Dave: And shock almost doesn’t do justice to it. People were so furious and humiliated. And really didn’t know what to do.

David: The primary question on many LGBT people’s minds was – why did they vote against us? And that’s when Dave came up with a plan, that would turn out to be a radical idea. He said, “Let’s just go ask.”

Dave: Why don’t we recruit a team of people, and go to talk to the voters who voted against us – and find out why they did that.

David: It was a huge undertaking, and soon they began to record those conversations. First audio, then video. And then they would get together and watch those conversations, and note what worked and what didn’t. And over time, over years – through iteration – throwing away what didn’t work, and keeping what did. They began to zero in on the kind of conversation that can shift a person’s attitude. Deep canvassing began to come into focus, and it seemed to work really, really well.

Dave: And over the next several years, we had more than 12 000 conversations, David.

David: That’s when they brought the scientists in. To see if they were doing something that was real, or if they were just under the spell of confirmation bias. The first batch of research was completed, and that’s when Brockman and Keller got involved. And that’s when Brockman and Keller discovered the fraud in the first batch of research. And they helped get that retracted. And then, more or less, they started over – with a scientific blank slate in Miami, where the LGBT Center and SAVE went door to door deep canvassing. To have conversations with voters about transgender rights.

Josh: Before and after the canvassing, before the experiment took place, I also went to – to participate first hand, to really experience what these conversations are like.

David: That’s Josh Keller again. He and Brockman, they visited several times. They observed, and as he said – they participated in these canvasses. The groups, they would get together, they would prep all morning. And then before noon they would go out several Saturday’s in a row. And Keller told me this was unique. The unique experience for science. Because before this, when you’re studying how to reduce prejudice, usually it’s done through observational studies. Looking at who people are friends with, and whether or not they’re prejudiced. Or laboratory studies, that do things like bring employees into diversity training workshops every day for a year, and then record the outcome. In this kind of research, there weren’t very many real world field studies like this.

Dave: The canvassing here was pretty unique. Where – just on a random Saturday morning, some smiling volunteer would knock on your door and start talking to you about prejudice.

23:14 ?: Like if I was going to like design a technique from the ground up – I would go into their front door knocking on it would not be my first choice. It would feel like I’m inviting catastrophe right off the bat. I’m inviting someone to be defensive. And I mean you’re – there’s a visceral thing of like, “You’re at my house right now walking– I was watching Judge Judy, and now I’m talking to you about transgender rights.” It just feels counter-intuitive on the face of it.

23:48 ?: Yeah, yeah. That’s one of the things that really surprised me. Is that most voters are actually really willing and excited to have these conversations. I think, conditional on someone opening their door. About 70% of people actually finished their conversation. Which I find to be a really high number. And that surprised me a little bit. And I think – part of the reason why the volunteers are so effective, is that – the folks in the Leadership LAB really preached this notion of radical hospitality. From the first minute a volunteer shows up on a Saturday morning to when they leave that Saturday afternoon, they’re just treated as amazing guests. And everyone goes out of their way to be friendly and welcoming. And then throughout the training, the volunteers are taught how to be friendly and welcoming to the voter. And they’re taught how to actively listen to the voter, and to share stories with the voter. In a such a way where they can build rapport with a voter, and the voter can hopefully become comfortable and start to open up – and have genuine, honest conversations about prejudice.

Laura: I have to both know what kind of experience the volunteers are coming in with. So how a training is – a training is going to be very different if it’s a group of first time canvassers, versus a group that’s been canvassing for the last several months or several years.

David: That’s Laura Gardner. She heads up the training of new volunteers at The Leadership LAB

Laura: So my name is Laura Gardner, and I am the national mentoring coordinator at the Leadership LAB

David: I’ve been to 3 of these training sessions in Los Angeles, and they are incredibly well organized and fun. The staff stand at the head of the room with a paper easel and markers. And the volunteers, they separate into pods. Small rings of chairs, each with a veteran of the process as pod leader. For about an hour and a half, the principles of deep canvassing are laid out one by one. And at each step, the pods break out into huddles, or as they call them, “puddles,” to engage in mock conversations. Using each technique as they are described one at a time. People take turns being the canvasser and the person at the door. And – at least in my experience – you find yourself exploring sensitive parts of your life. Becoming vulnerable with the people in your group, and learning about yourself in ways you didn’t expect going in.

Laura: I think it’s just so essential that we’re prioritizing. What is it that we really want them to be focused on learning or improving? Because as you’ve experienced yourself, there are just so many parts of our canvassing conversations – and the canvas as a whole. Every single part of the canvas training, we could probably spend 5 times as much time training on. So it’s really about prioritizing the skills that are going to – that are most needed. Kind of the order of skills for canvassers. So that you’re really setting them up for success. So that they can have a good enough experience, and feel like they made progress in their own way and want to come back again.

David: Yeah you want – get it right the first time. And you may fail several times before you kind of catch onto the art of what they’re doing. And like I said earlier, the technique itself can seem at times like therapy. It has shades of cognitive behavioral therapy in it, Rogerian therapy built in. Rooting around for people’s core beliefs, but doing so by asking questions and listening. Acting as a conversational mirror for the other party. But it can also feel like speed dating, since there are also hints of psychologist Arthur Aron’s intimacy research in his self-expansion model. And of course, they use some of the principles of persuasion developed by Robert Cialdini. Building rapport, encouraging people to be consistent internally and externally. And there’s even some Socratic method built in there. But none of this was by design. The team didn’t read about these things and incorporate them. Instead, as Laura and the rest of the team say, it was all discovered in the field.

Josh: Yeah, that’s the impressive thing about the Center. Is that they kind of settled on this technique as far as I can tell from just trial and error.

Laura: I think it would’ve. I think – maybe optimistically we would’ve thought that we could make an impact with some voters who voted against us. But because we had just absolutely no idea what we would find at the doors, it was hard from the very beginning to assume that anything can happen that was– That ended up being as effective as what we now have. I think when we started, it was purely from this place of curiosity. So we didn’t know if they would open their door, if they were going to talk to us – they would talk to us for how long, they’d be honest with us? So every single piece of that was an ah ha moment.

Josh: They’ve been canvassing on LGBT issues since the loss on Prop 8. They’ve been canvassing since 2009, going out every couple of weeks and having hundreds of conversations with voters, and filming those conversations, and analyzing that film to see what seems to be working and what doesn’t seem to be working.

Laura: Once it became clear the voters would talk to us, it did become like an exciting challenge. If I was to speak to speak just personally, it did feel like this exciting psychological challenge. I don’t come from a background of studying psychology or anything.

Josh: And through this iterative process, they seemed to have discovered something that is really, really effective. And it’s consistent with the psychological theories. But as far as I know, I don’t think Dave Fleischer started by reading a bunch of psych journals and going from there. But instead it was just more inductive process.

Laura: There was something about – this epiphany we had over the first couple of years about wow, these people – they don’t think of themselves as prejudice people. They want to be supportive of everybody. And yet, there’s clearly something holding them back. Like what has happened to them throughout their life? ‘Cause these people are not born prejudice. So what has happened to them throughout their life? What experiences have they had? What interactions with LGBT people or just the world around them, and how the world treats LGBT people – that has influenced them to have these negative feelings or stereotypes and assumptions. So I think it was that like realization that that’s kind of what was at play in influencing their vote, ultimately. That – and guess would be like the psychological perspective I had, even though it was really just an intense curiosity that I was most focused on.

David: So, what did Brockman and Keller’s study show? As the canvassers went from door to door, the study was framed like a medical trial. Half of the households received an intervention – that’s the deep canvassing technique. And half of the households received a placebo, a conversation about recycling. As you heard in the conversation earlier in the episode, the attitude change – if it occurred – was recorded at the door. And through some pretty sneaky hidden survey techniques, those same people were tracked for months afterward, to see if the mind change stuck. Or if the person’s peer group reasserted it’s influence.

Josh: 3 days, 3 weeks, 6 weeks and 3 months. We compare the average response of people who received the real transgender equality canvas, to the average response that people gave who received the recycling placebo canvas. And what we find is that over time, the difference on that transgender tolerance scale – between the treatment group and the placebo group – is somewhere around .25 or .3 standard deviations. Which is a really large and significant treatment effect. And understanding standard deviations can be a little bit tricky. But what this effect is comparable too is the average opinion change that occurred from 1998 to 2012 towards gay men and lesbians in the United States.

David: Now I feel like me, you like to hear percentages. Because it helps things make a lot more sense to you. So I asked Josh Keller if he could provide a percentage of mind change.

Josh: First approximation, what we can say is that the treatment generated about 10 new supporters for every 100 conversations they had.

David: It would be fair to say around 10%

Josh: Around 10% yeah. But it’s an approximation, but around 10%.

David: Now if 10% doesn’t sound like much, you’re not a political scientist. Because it is huge. A mind change of much less than this could easily change laws or turn the tide of an election.

Josh: But almost more exciting for me than the – the magnitude of that treatment effect, is how long that treatment lasted. We find that it lasted for at least 3 months. Which is a very long time and almost unheard of in the political science research. And we find that this effect remains even after people are exposed to opposition messaging. So we took some of the campaign ads that folks have used when they’ve tried to oppose transgender rights at the ballot. And we showed voters these ads, and we see that even after voters see those opposition ads – and even after we tried to persuade them to oppose transgender rights, those who received the treatment canvas still remain more supportive of transgender rights than those who did not.

David: So in other words, the technique works. And this news has generated a second blast of media attention. The story now is one of vindication. And I asked Laura what she thought when she heard the news that this whole funky affair, the fraud, the scandalous media attention, all that stuff – it might be behind them.

Laura: It felt wonderful to finally have some scientific proof. And we measured for real. In a way that proved that we can lastingly reduce prejudice toward transgender people. There’s something about having an independent assessment of your work that’s really validating. And having other people who haven’t experienced it in the same way, now start to understand and appreciate it’s effectiveness. I think was just really – it felt great. And so I think when – if fraud was uncovered – that was– That was hard, because all of a sudden it felt like even though we still had faith in the model, most folks were like, “Oh well, you guys, that was too good to be true.” And so I think there was just like a selfish happiness of – now everyone can really appreciate how – what we’re doing is really having a positive impact. And not just a positive impact, ’cause we’re reducing prejudice in these conversations – but that it lasts. It lasts up to 9 months. And that’s just unprecedented, right?

David: Is this unprecedented? I don’t know. I asked Josh Keller if he knew, and he said he didn’t. But he did have this to say.

Josh: Yeah I think, I think this is how kind of – how we think about the scientific process when we’re in grade school. Where David and I heard about this really exciting study, and we wanted to see how we could build on that study. And while we were trying to build on that study, we noted some irregularities. But then we – we still conducted the study we wanted to conduct. And we – we learned something that we find really cool and exciting, and hopefully other folks find it exciting as well and will continue to build on and replicate our results. Because science, science works in that iterative process. And hopefully more people will, will start studying this.

David: Wait a second though. So deep canvassing works, okay. But how does it work? We ask that question next after this break. This is the You Are Not So Smart Podcast. I’m David McRaney, and this is the final segment about deep canvassing. So the research suggests that deep canvassing works. But how does it work? I asked Steve Deline what he thought.

Steve: So my name is Steve Deline, and I am a field organizer at The Leadership LAB at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

David: Steve is one of the people who has spent the most time considering just what is happening at those doorsteps. And he said that when new people come in to learn the method – which by the way, many people do. When I was there, I met people from around the country who had pilgrimaged to meet the team and learn deep canvassing. And the technique is being tested around the country on topics like climate change and vaccination. And when they teach this technique to new people, Steve and Laura told me there’s one thing that they tell them upfront, that usually catches them off guard.

Steve: There is nothing you can say, there is nothing you can tell this person that’s going to change their mind.

Laura: You’re trying to reduce prejudice. Odds are good, but it won’t happen by delivering some talking points or some pieces of data. ‘Cause they’re very impersonal. And while they are interesting, and sometimes can be really motivating to us – right? The base – our own base of focus, we’re supportive of trans people. They – there’s nothing persuasive about a generic talking point.

Steve: Well above all else, we trust our own guts. We trust our own feelings and emotions and instincts. And we use those to guide us when we’re making – when we’re forming our opinions. And so, oftentimes, when we see facts or figures that don’t align with our opinions – our gut instincts lead us to kind of just reject that, like a – like an unhealthy virus.

Laura: Thinking about hypothetical situations that aren’t rooted in reality, are very ineffective. Things such as – well what if you had a transgender child? Or what if you came across a transgender person in the bathroom? ‘Cause they’re just make believe scenarios that – it’s easy for somebody to be able to think whatever they want about it.

Steve: There’s so many reasons you can take – discount a piece of information or a fact or a figure. That are, I think our emotional cores lead us to just push that away. Because what we feel is more important is kind of maintaining our own sense of internal consistency.

Laura: What is helpful for us is reality. It’s helpful as people actually think about – well what do you do when you use the rest room? Right, you just go into a stall. And what’s your experience with transgender people, and what’s your experience even noticing people around you in the rest room. I think being able to give people a reality check is super helpful. And if you are wanting to use a talking point or a fact – feel free to do so, but pair it with something that’s much more personal.

Steve: If we can resist the urge to do that, resist the urge to trust in our superior knowledge, and instead try to uncover what it is in that person’s own life and experience that might lead them to a common value or a common way of looking at things with us. If we can kind of seek common ground that way, suddenly we’re in this whole different territory that can work. Not only actively listen to other people, but proactively get them to share vulnerable and emotional things that they wouldn’t normally bring to bear on the topic. The only way they’re going to change their mind is by changing their own mind. By talking themselves through their own thinking, by processing things they’ve never thought about before. Things from their own life that are going to help them see things differently.

David: I asked David Brockman and Joshua Keller if they had any speculation or insights into why deep canvassing works as well as it does.

David B: There’s been a lot of research in the world of voter mobilization and voter turnout for many years. That’s found that – the key – and this is work by David Nickerson and Chris Mann, I think showed this really gracefully. That if you – if this very same script, very same words on a page. If you read them in a rushed way to somebody, will have no effect on their voter turnout. But if you train the people doing it to ask questions where people are supposed to respond and the other person kind of has no choice but to either be rude, or actually talk back to you, and therefore have to do thinking about what to say – and have to think through what you’re saying. It’s doing that, having people – the mental work is what leads to effects in that world, and also to effects that seem to last in the world of persuasion.

Josh: These techniques of getting people to expend mental calories, has been shown – across various domains to be effective at producing long term attitude change.

David B: And this is that old Kahneman idea of thinking fast, versus thinking slow. A system one versus system two thinking.

Josh: One of the reasons why we thought that most persuasion just isn’t lasting, is that how campaigns tend to talk to voters is through that system 1 learning. That thinking fast rather than thinking slow. It’s through 30 second TV ads, or campaign mailers. So people might notice that mailer for a day, and it might change their thoughts for a day. But very quickly, they’re going to return to their previously held beliefs.

David B: The idea being that in the persuasion context, which has been all this great work done for while – pioneered by folks like Petty and Cacioppo and others. About how, when someone’s being persuaded, if they’re thinking effort-fully about the message, then they’re much more likely to remember it, and change their attitudes in a lasting way – than if they are not thinking about it. So it’s the difference between driving by a billboard, and these kind of conversations where people are asking questions and thinking about what they’re doing.

Josh: When it comes to something like reducing prejudice, where you’re trying to really build a social movement and change how society views an entire group – it’s important to not just change attitudes for a day or 2. But to really change someone’s attitudes for a lifetime. And we want that kind of long term attitude change. And we think it requires – it’s effort-full thinking, yet no one in politics does effort-full thinking. So it’s very exciting to see what the Leadership LAB does. Where they really say, “It’s up to the voter to persuade themselves. And it’s up to the voter to think hard about these issues.” And we, as canvassers are going to guide the voter on that journey.

David B: Kind of walking them through on that feeling level and emotional level. And through like – hey maybe there’s something that– There’s some part of your world that actually does really align with this? And it’s going to feel really good with you say supporting transgender people’s access to the bathrooms. We just need to think about it together and give you a chance to ponder stuff maybe that you don’t normally think about. When there going well, and what we try to create at every door is so much more of like, “Hey, this is not a competition. Let’s see if we can like team up, and like solve a mystery together. Let’s see if we can team up and like cooperate, to like think through things together. And there’s not going to be like this pressure for you to like see things the way I do. Or for us to have to like prove anything to each other. Let’s just offer stuff up to the other, and see where it gets us. So it’s like completely cooperative and not competitive.

David: Brockman and Kalla told me that they believe that one of the most taxing mental tasks – one that requires a lot of active processing, is something called analogic perspective taking. And this is a higher level of cognitive ability. Something that children aren’t very good at, and you have to reach a certain age to even be able to perform this mental task effectively. And when you do, you take an analogy from your own life, and then you apply that analogy to someone else’s. It’s a technique used in high level negotiations, like when nations negotiate peace and war. You may recall a few episodes back, we discussed this with psychologist Lee Ross, who said that when he has worked in the past in conflict resolution in Northern Ireland and in talks between Israel and Palestine, where the stakes are very high. Where people want to meet. They rarely meet in order to come to understand the other side’s perspective. Instead, both parties are only interested in communicating their own perspectives. Like a person at a party who never listens, and just waits for his turn to talk – by coming up with more things to say while you’re talking. Here’s a quote from that show.

Lee: What I have never experienced in 40 years of doing this, is people who say, “I really want to meet with the other side, because I think I have things wrong. I think I don’t know the facts. I think my reasoning is eschew. I think I’m biased. And I want to meet with the other side, so that they can set me straight.” I’ve never ever had the experience of even a single individual tell me that.

David: Everyone can empathize with other people. But taking it to the next level, giving up your own viewpoint for a while and trying on someone else’s – that’s really, really hard. That’s why perspective taking is so powerful.

Josh: Perspective taking is not just getting someone to feel sad, and therefore you change their minds. But it really involves this much more rational approach of connecting someone’s life, someone’s experiences to the life and experiences of an out-group.

David: And this is a big part of deep canvassing. Everyone already knows that prejudice is bad. But that’s just an empty fact. It’s abstract. In deep canvassing, after you build rapport, and after you make the issue seem like it effects the other person’s life, because it does in some way. And after you engage their active processing by asking questions – after all of that priming, canvassers ask the other person about similar experiences from that voters own life. Times when they have felt ostracized or judged or made to feel lesser than. Or if they’ve been on the receiving end of prejudice.

David B: Now all of a sudden when I say discrimination is wrong, I’m feeling that in a different way, and I can now understand – oh yeah, it’s like – it’s really hard to be discriminated against and treated differently. I can see what it might be like to be that person. And all those things I just said before about how I might want to treat that group differently. Wow, I actually really don’t want to do that, ’cause I remember what that’s like.

David: Perspective taking is just one of many aspects of human psychology that deep canvassing uses. And like Brockman and Keller have said many times, this is a technique that’s sort of a kitchen sink approach to persuasion. Which is why, personally I just think it’s so fascinating. And considering this, I wondered where Brockman and Keller were focusing their research next.

Josh: Yeah I think – this is only one study. And this one study – very exciting and provides a really great blueprint for LGBT advocates. But it also raises a number of questions. As we’ve talked about, there have been a number of psychological principles that have built into the study. Things like active processing and perspective taking. There’s the video that the canvassers share. There’s stories that the canvassers share and that the voters share. Which aspects of this kind of kitchen sink approach are most effective? And I think the third set of questions kinda revolve around – if we can figure out what levers or mechanisms are most effective, or are there generalized principles from this canvassing approach that can be applied to other issues?

David B: That kind of intermediate level of generalizability that I’m most interested in exploring. Is this question of how important it is to get people to tell stories from their life. So I think that’s an idea out there that is kind of an old organizing principle. You see that in a lot – the works by Cesar Chavez and – all of his older work with Marshall Ganz and going back to even Saul Alinsky. One of the key organizing principles there – in terms of building commitment of volunteers. And I’m sure I’ll butcher it. But one key principle you’ve seen in a lot in their writing, is the importance of having people tell their stories and talk about times when, for example, particular values became important to them. So that’s kind of an old idea as well and the one that I’m sure I’ll get a bunch of emails after this – which will great – from all the folks who actually study this. The one that I’ve seen less of explored quantitatively in kind of it’s more – you read about it in history books. So I think that intermediate principle of, that kind of telling personal stories is the way that the LA LGBT Center got to perspective taking. But it also might be a way to get to lots of other psychological possibilities as well.

David: So I think the bottom line – and both David Brockman and Joshua Keller told me this. Is that this is completely new territory. Oddly enough we don’t actually know very much about how to change people’s minds. Not scientifically. So the work of the Leadership LAB is offering something very valuable to psychology and political science. Uncharted, scientific territory.

David B: ‘Cause we don’t really know exactly why it works, right? It’s sort of like – you start off and there’s this old wisdom from 2500 years ago that if you would chew on this one tree bark, then you wouldn’t get headaches. And later we realized that that was aspirin, and now we – then we distilled aspirin. And now we know, “Okay well, it’s actually this particular chemical in aspirin, which is the active ingredient.” And it’s like that we’re – we’re at the tree bark stage right now. Oh like, “Hey, if you do this thing, you get effects.” But we have no idea like what’s doing the work or why or what the underlying chemistry is. I guess my view on it is now the real work begins.