By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes.
We live in a world where the pace and means of communication evolves at an incredible rate. However, a very fundamental, organic practice still holds its place in significance: face-to-face conversation.
That’s what Donald P. Green and Michael J. LaCour concluded in their recent study, “When contact changes minds”.
The pair of researchers tested the effect that canvassers had on conservative voters in Los Angeles County regarding the topic of same-sex marriage. Both gay and straight proponent canvassers were dispatched from the local LGBT center. The study analyzed data from over the course of 12 months.
At first, both gay and straight canvassers were successful in persuading conservative voters to become proponents of same-sex marriage. However, when results were again analyzed after three weeks, six weeks, and nine months, it was found that only the gay canvassers’ effects held through.
In fact, their effects were contagious. The conservative voters they convinced even managed to sway the opinions of the people with which they share living spaces to be pro-same-sex marriage.
Green, a Professor of Political Science at Columbia, mentions to BTR that an important factor in “When contact changes minds” was the quality and style of the conversations that the canvassers conducted. Not only were they genuinely supportive of the marriage issue, they were also “trained and supervised very, very carefully.”
For decades, Green has authored a multitude of different studies on door-to-door canvassing, and admits he’s seen a variety of results. Usual canvassing conversations are brief and may last 30 seconds, he explains.
On the contrary, the sessions from his most recent research involved two-way dialogs that lasted for approximately 20 minutes. Not only did canvassers explore the myriad of topics like “gay people, gay rights, equality” and marriage, but they made sure to ask questions and listen carefully. These were involved face-to-face discourses where the parties were made sure to respectfully express their views, touch on anecdotes, and hear each other out.
Going back to typical canvassing sessions, Green describes them as revolving around a “very, very focused message” where canvassers hoped the recipients are similar enough in personality and their values to make them “inclined to believe” such a stance.
Further, the fact that gay canvassers were able to change the minds of conservative voters actually contradicts the premise of the contact hypothesis theory. The established theory stated that in order to promote tolerance and acceptance amongst people, they need to be convinced by others who are similar to them–i.e. straight parties would be successful at communicating with other straight parties.
“In an era of great partisan polarization and acrimony it is a reminder that having a conversation with somebody–even somebody who disagrees with you profoundly–does change minds,” Green reasons.
LaCour, who is a PhD Candidate of Political Science at UCLA, agrees with the greater political assessment of the study they co-authored. On a societal level, he adds that it’s inspiring to realize the potency of face-to-face communication in the era of mass “information overload” as opposed to seeing an advertisement or listening to a cold message.
LaCour is interested in taking the findings from “When contact changes minds” and applying them to other field situations. He’s in the process of conducting a similar study that investigates the effects canvassers have addressing the topic of abortion. He is looking into whether women who actually had an abortion and disclose this information are able to convince the parties with whom they share their story.
While we don’t know how this method of research may impact the dynamics of digital communication on political topics, it will be interesting to further explore how verbal discourse plays into individuals’ perspectives on issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, or whatever other issue is presented.