A study published in 1991 by psychologists at the University of Florida, Changing Personal Beliefs: Effects of Forewarning, Argument Quality, Prior Bias, and Personal Exploration (Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, vol. 10, no. 1, 1991, pp. 1-20) found being well-prepared to respond to an argument can keep one being persuaded.
They performed a series of three experiments on undergraduates on the issue of whether one should be completely honest in a relationship. They sought to investigate the way in which a counterargument, such as might be raised in counseling, would affect one. For instance, you are a counselor. A counselee comes to you and has relationship problems. You tell the counselee to be completely honest in the relationship, which is not the counselee’s belief. How successful will you be in convincing the counselee?
In the first experiment, they presented strong and weak arguments to two sets of people. In one group, they warned the student that they would be hearing an argument which challenged in their belief. They gave these students a short time to prepare for hearing their counter arguments. A second set of students was not forewarned. The groups were further divided into hearing “strong” or “weak” arguments.
They expected that forewarning the student would cause the students to be more resistant to the arguments. Instead, they found no significant difference between the two groups: the only thing which mattered was the strength of the argument. Strangely, they discovered that for some students, the forewarning actually increased the effect of the argument.
The hypothesis ran as follows: If I had good reasons for my position & if I had time to prepare, when I heard the counter argument I would be ready to respond. But, if I really had no good reason for my positions, few or no arguments – and those arguments weak – when I was presented with counterarguments the effect would be to collapse: In effect the poorly prepared but forewarned student realized that he really didn’t have any good reason for his position.
I can vouch for this from a position of being raised a Christian. As a kid, I had various questions about this or that. The answer was always along the lines of, It is bad to ask questions. So when I was confronted with counter arguments, I concluded, well I guess I don’t really have any good reasons for my position.
To test that idea, they sorted the students again – but this time they looked for evidence that a student had arguments to back up the “bias”. The more arguments the student had for his side, the stronger the bias. This was a bit problematic, because one could have one very strong argument or three weak arguments.
Their idea was that one with more arguments would be more easily able to access any arguments which presented with the counter.
It turned out that forewarning a student with an array of counter arguments made it easier to access the counter arguments and made them more resistant to agreement.
In a third experiment, they learned that one could increase the increase their resistance by being preparing them to “explore” their position. This found a slight increase in resistance for “low bias” individuals.
“One provocative implication of the data concerns the potentially undesirable impact of directed exploration and attitude clarification in counseling. The effects of reviewing and articulating self-relevant attitudes may be to render them more resistant to subsequent change.”
There is an additional way to understand the findings of this research. It is not that one is staking up arguments one against the other. Another way to understand this research is to consider the possibility that the “subject” of the experiment is not paying attention:
When a person receives a communication and is faced with the decision of accepting or rejecting the persuasion, he may be expected to attempt to relate the new information to his existing attitudes, knowledge, feelings, etc. In the course of doing this, he likely rehearses substantial cognitive content beyond that of the persuasive message itself.
Anthony G. Greenwald, “Cognitive Learning, Cognitive Response to Persuasion, and Attitude Change,” in Psychological Foundations of Attitudes, ed. A.G. Greewald, T.C. Brock, and T.M. Ostrom (New York: Academic Press, 1968), 149.The author then goes on to quote a 1949 publication:
There is reason to suspect that those audience members who are already opposed to the point of view being presented may be distracted [from the content of the communication] by “rehearsing” their own arguments while the topic is being presented and will be antagonized by the omission of the arguments on their side.