Telling people how to feel doesn’t work

Researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough recently submitted an article to the journal Psychological Science 1 showing how, basically, telling people not to be prejudiced backfires on us and actually increases prejudice in those told.

Based heavily on self-determination theory 2, Legault et al proposed that the most effective method of reducing prejudice was to cultivate internal motivations rather than external ones. They showed this through two experiments. In the first, participants were given one of three brochures, a brochure explaining the virtue of personal value of non-prejudice, a brochure telling them to conform to social norms of non-prejudice, and a no brochure group where participants were simply informed of what prejudice is. These groups were then given a test to assess their external or internal motivation. In the second experiment, participants were assessed based on the Implicit Associations Test 3 4. Their results, not surprisingly, confirm that when we tell people what to feel, they do the exact opposite.

How does this relate to us, you may ask? In the atheist movement, some of our most prominent people are in the confrontation camp (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, P.Z., and J.T. Eberhard, to name a few), and our most prominent messages are ones of confrontation (i.e., “you KNOW it’s a myth”). Further, in a more recent example, Rebecca Watson had the good sense to tell a large group of atheists that women should not be objectified, and a multitude of people are acting in the exact opposite of that message 5. Psychologists and political scientists have shown how confirmation bias and the backfire effect 6 7 constantly affect our ability to reason with the other side of the argument.

In other words, telling people how to feel doesn’t work, but linking the stance to personal value just damn well might. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for calling someone on their bullshit when they spit egregious facts in my face, but when trying to convince someone that their actions are wrong, telling them outright may not be the answer. Obviously, in any situation where you feel in danger, you don’t have the time to explain in detail how the other person could benefit by not acting like an asshat. However, when we’re in front of a large group of people to give a talk on whatever topic of interest, we might do better to look for more intrinsic motivators in our calls for action.


  1. Legault, L., Gutsell, J. M., & Inzlicht, M. (2011, June). Ironic Effects of Anti-Prejudice Messages: How Motivational Interventions Can Reduce (but also increase) Prejudice. Under Review. Retrieved July 11, 2011, from http://www.michaelinzlicht.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2011/06/Legault-Inzlicht-Gutsell-in-press.pdf
  2. Self-determination theory at the University of Rochester: http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/
  3. explanation of and examples of the IAT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_Association_Test
  4. Take a sample IAT: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/
  5. see my previous post
  6. describes how, when confronted with evidence which conflicts our beliefs, those beliefs become stronger
  7. Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303-330. doi:10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2
Not the Philosophy of Atheism

Why Can't You Leave Religion Alone?

The Thinking Atheist posted this question, along with a lengthy answer, on their Facebook page as a note.

I post it here for a couple of reasons: 1. Because I agree completely with it. 2. Because it is a perfect example of social context.

The religious in the United States have been cocooned for far too long. They can drive around town and be within sight of a church no matter where they go. Likewise, they see religious messages and iconography on billboards and businesses which support their beliefs. Since these beliefs are usually a positive influence on their lives, messages which hatefully condemn others are easily dismissed as necessary to spread the word; no matter how hurtful those messages are to non-believers. To them, their message is the Truth™ and we just haven’t accepted it yet.

For us, it is a delusion; a conclusion which evidence (or lack thereof) has brought us to and many of us see the situation above in the exact opposite way. The biggest difference between Believers and non-believers is not belief, but this; when non-believers openly express their conclusions we are attacking the belief, not the person; when believers openly express their beliefs they are attacking us, not our conclusions.

There are so many Christian groups out there who preach tolerance and understanding. Why don’t those groups ask the same question of their brothers and sisters in faith? Why can’t you allow Atheists to speak about our conclusions with as much respect and tolerance as you wish to be granted you? Sadly, Seth answers those questions as well.

Original text

The protests come every day from the religious, and they go something like this:

“Why spend your time disproving God?”

“Why not just let people believe what they want to believe?”

“Why can’t you leave religion alone?”

As one YouTube commenter said recently, “No one can explain to me why it is so important to convince theists to abandon their beliefs.”

The answer is simple. Pages like this one exist because religion exists.

Religion permeates our culture, shows up on our doorsteps with literature, scriptures and threats of eternal damnation, influences our science books, contaminates our political systems, indoctrinates our children and postulates that its doctrine must be followed, lest we be destroyed in body, in soul, or both.

Non-believers are simply responding to the avalanche of religious messages that bears down upon us daily.

Religion gets carte blanche to be as vocal as it wants, to knock on our doors and accost us in our homes, in our places of work, in our personal and professional lives. Believers are charged with a life mission to preach, teach, disciple, shout it from the mountaintops and to “go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” Religion…is everywhere.

Ask yourself. When’s the last time an atheist rang your doorbell with the Good News of Humanism? How often do you find Richard Dawkins books in the dresser drawers of your hotel rooms? When was the last atheist temple erected in your neighborhood? Have you ever attended an atheist revival? Has atheism demanded 10% of your household income? How many dedicated atheist television channels come through your satellite dish? How many atheist verses were you instructed to memorize as a child? When’s the last time someone thanked a FARMER (or even the cook) at the dinner table instead of God?

On a more radical front, what’s the name of the last atheist who sawed the head off of an “infidel?” Or sentenced a shrouded woman to death for displeasing an oppressive husband? Or strapped explosives to his belt in order to kill hundreds in a public square? Or publicly hung a gay person for his choice of lifestyle?

It’s everywhere. Religion is a pounding drum that has gone mostly unanswered for a long, long time. And religion is not satisfied with merely existing quietly in the homes and hearts of the faithful. Its very nature compels the believer to proselytize, preach, promote, convince, convert and prevail. If you play on the team of the religious, your game plan is to stay, always, on offense.

Throughout our history, those who raise a simple hand of protest against these advances have been portrayed as the real problem. Religion has attempted to marginalize and defeat legitimate questions and concerns by indignantly portraying any resistors as misguided, immoral, rudderless, angry, miserable, lost and alone.

And when skepticism challenges wildly improbable (or impossible) stories found in the bible, the Qur’an and other holy books, the religious wail, “Why can’t you just leave us alone?”

The irony is thick.

And religion impedes curiosity and inhibits learning, as the much-maligned Creation Museum proves. It stymies critical thinking. It stretches us to believe the unbelievable. And it poisons the foundational teachings we are using to train up the generations of tomorrow.

Pages like mine exist as a response… a counter-argument to ensure that the cacophony of superstition does not go unchallenged. And if your belief system is so undeniable, so factual, so provable, so real and so true, certainly it can withstand the opposing viewpoints presented here and elsewhere. Certainly, it can survive the acid tests.

Just remember. Religion began the argument. It amplifies itself before the world. And it threatens all mankind with punishment upon its rejection.

We are atheists. We are moral. We are reasonable. We are thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate, happy, fulfilled and well-informed.

And as long as religion insists on fixing human beings who are not broken, we will respond with the evidence that we are not the problem.


Lines in the sand

Should people be allowed to have stupid beliefs?

I am an atheist. Nearly everyone who knows me knows it. While I do not doubt what I know, I do waffle on how exactly to practice this outlook on life. There are those, like P.Z. Myers, J.T. Eberhard, and Richard Dawkins, who think a direct and confrontational approach to anti-scientific beliefs are the way to “win” the culture war between religion and science. On the other hand, there are people like Kenneth Miller and Pamela Gay who, being either of faith or at least willing to believe in such things, think a cooperative approach is necessary.

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