Even Silver Bullets Backfire

All too often objective evidence fuels rather than calms the fire of the debate.

Perched on a hill in rural Ontario, a proposed advanced manufacturing site overlooked a handful of farmhouses whose residents were laying siege to the project. The developer had done almost everything they could think to keep the peace. The facility would blend in to the local topography; it would employ local trades; it would be sustainable; it would be LEED certified; no emissions; no odour. But to no avail. It was water that separated the two sides. The facility was water-intensive and would use tens of thousands of gallons a day. The earliest media coverage had suggested that might have an impact on local water levels, and the neighbours living on wells in the same aquifer were up in arms.

No amount of information could change their minds. Not the fact that the company would be recycling 95 per cent of that water, or that fact that the nearby farms regularly used five times as much water. What’s worse, what the company thought was a silver bullet turned out to be a blank. A recently completed water study definitively showed the project would use less fresh water than five single family homes. But nobody down the hill believed it. Residents instead had glommed on to wording in the report that stated the project was “unlikely” to cause any changes to well levels in the area. To the scientists behind the report — schooled to never say “never” — this meant improbable; to the residents it meant “possible.” But the problem at hand was bigger than different interpretations of “unlikely.”

The developer was facing what political scientists term the “backfire effect,” coined to describe the way that even when given evidence that contradicts what they believe, people will maintain their beliefs and actually become even more convinced of them. Information that does not support their beliefs is dismissed, and they claim even greater confidence that they have been correct all along. They may dismiss data as statistical noise, and take even more extreme positions on issues than was initially the case.

In this case, the residents had examined the water study and saw what they expected to see, concluded what they expected to conclude, and then dug in their heels. All too often objective evidence fuels rather than calms the fire of the debate. The problem is that when faced with concerns, the default strategy for developers and politicians alike is to double down with more facts. But the brain is wired to reject those facts if they are contrary to existing beliefs, even if those beliefs are unfounded.

Thankfully, experience with the backfire effect shows a way out of this quagmire. The key is to move the dialogue away from the facts and towards a demonstration of common values. This is because without an understanding that the two parties share a common set of values, it’s nearly impossible to establish trust.  And without trust, facts might as well be opinions.

In the case of the site on the hill, they had made the mistake of letting the facts speak for themselves. They had designed the building with utmost concern for the neighbours, from its location to its environmental footprint.  And they had released the water study, again, with the neighbours in mind. They had presented all of this information to council. Everyone had read about it in the media. But the company had never actually sat down one-on-one with the neighbours to get to know one another. And in this case, that was all it took to turn things around.

Over the course of two weeks, the company’s president personally visited every house down the hill. He talked about his childhood in a community very much like theirs. He talked about the company’s plans to raise money for the local hospital. And he listened to their concerns. Company reps started showing up at local events, and even walked in the Labour Day parade. In short, they started acting like a neighbour, rather than an invading army. To their surprise, within a few short weeks, the water issue became water under the bridge, and they got their permits to build in the community.

Kevin Powers is managing principal of Project Advocacy Inc., a subsidiary of Campbell Strategies, and is focused on helping project developers facing public and government opposition.

Find him at www.projectadvocacy.ca or email him at [email protected]


Kevin Powers, good projects
Kevin Powers.
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