The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why we can’t agree on gun control

The problem isn’t a lack of information. It’s how we are predisposed to interpret it.

In the wake of yet another mass shooting — this time claiming the lives of at least 12 people in Thousand Oaks, Calif. — it’s painfully obvious that the United States has a problem with gun violence. In our current political environment, it’s also obvious that little can be done about it.

Sixty-one percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws, according to a recent Gallup poll, but this statistic hides a strong partisan divide: Eighty-seven percent of Democrats support tougher gun laws, while only 31 percent of Republicans do. How can we solve the gun violence problem when Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to come together on anything these days, let alone on an issue as politically divided as gun control?

If we want to overcome the political divide on guns, we first need to understand why we have it. The cause of partisan conflict is generally not a lack of evidence or an inability to understand it. In fact, for contentious issues, having a greater understanding of the information can actually increase belief polarization, leading people with opposing views to end up even further apart.

One problem is that we’re wired to search for and interpret information in a way that reinforces our beliefs and values. As social psychologist Ziva Kunda describes it, “When we come across evidence that supports our desired conclusions, we may accept it at face value but when we come across comparable evidence that challenges our desired conclusions, we may evaluate it more critically and try harder to refute it.” So coffee drinkers might pay more attention to research on the benefits of caffeine; smokers might avoid pictures of gray, shriveled-up lungs; and we might all look for reasons to excuse our instances of bad driving.

Gun policy is ripe for motivated reasoning on both sides. Many factors contribute to gun violence, which makes it easier for people to construct alternative narratives around the few factors they find convincing. And because our feelings about guns are tied to deep-seated beliefs and values, we are highly determined to find explanations that fit with our worldview.

A study by law professor Dan M. Kahan and his colleagues demonstrates how people’s desired conclusions can affect the way they process information. Kahan and colleagues compared how two groups of participants analyzed data: One group was told that the results were from a study on the effectiveness of a skin rash treatment, and one was told the results were from research on the effectiveness of a gun-control ban.

When participants thought they were analyzing data on a skin rash treatment, conservative and liberal participants came to similar conclusions about the effectiveness of the treatment. When participants were told that the data were about a gun-control ban, however, the participants’ political views significantly affected how they interpreted the results. Democratic participants were more likely to correctly interpret the results when the data showed the gun ban decreased crime, and Republican participants were more likely to correctly interpret the results when the data showed the gun ban increased crime. People’s political preferences biased their view of the evidence.

Given our tendency to pick and choose data to support our beliefs, if we want to draw widespread agreement on gun policies, we need more than just data; we also need to know what motivates people. The question isn’t why people disagree with the evidence on gun policy but why they want to disagree with it.

Researchers Troy H. Campbell and Aaron C. Kay have identified one key reason that people deny social problems: They don’t like the proposed solutions. For instance, self-identified gun-control supporters were significantly less likely to say that intruder violence was a serious problem when they read an article arguing that the best solution for intruder violence is to have loose gun regulations than when they read an article arguing that the best way to minimize intruder violence is through gun control.

When Campbell and Kay turned to the environment, they found a similar “solution aversion” effect for conservatives. When self-identified Republicans read a blog about the problem of air pollution, they were reluctant to say that air pollution creates a health risk when the proposed solution was government regulation. However, when the proposed solution to air pollution was to rely on the free market, conservatives were significantly more likely to agree that air pollution was a problem.

Other research has produced similar results. Psychologist Irina Feygina and colleagues found that individuals who tend to justify social systems and institutions were more likely to want to help the environment when they were encouraged to view pro-environmental behavior as patriotic and a way to preserve the American way of life.

These findings show that people can be motivated to take actions and support policies they might typically avoid if they are able to view them in ways that resonate with their worldviews. While this might seem obvious, research shows that we often fail to do this. Instead, when trying to persuade people who hold different beliefs and values than we do, we often make the mistake of giving arguments based on our own beliefs and values. Moreover, we often vilify the other side when they are not convinced by these arguments.

The failure to recognize that what resonates with one side might differ from what resonates with the other side has been detrimental to solving social problems.

Anyone serious about building consensus on gun policy needs to be slower to judge and quicker to listen to those who disagree. I understand why gun-safety advocates might not want to listen to those who are skeptical of gun-safety laws. People are being killed in their places of worship and kids gunned down at school; this kind of crisis can make people feel they don’t have time for dialogue.

However, listening to those who are resistant to gun-control laws is more than just a sign of respect. Understanding what motivates people can help us come up with better solutions that are more likely to stick. Instead of focusing on what motivates us, we need to ask what motivates them. We don’t all need to take the same path to get to the same destination. We can get more people to the destination if we can find a path they’re willing to take.