The Evangelical Conundrum: One Reason Your DEI Efforts May Be Falling Flat
There are dog people, and there are cat people. If you’re a dog person, and a cat person says, “You’ll change your mind once you meet my cat,” you may have an almost visceral reaction, relaying memories of the time a cat nearly scratched out your eye or bit your nephew. If this sounds familiar — from either side — you’ve felt the frustration of not being able to get through to someone who adamantly disagrees with you.
We call this the evangelical conundrum.
To be clear, this has nothing to do with a religious point of view. Evangelism refers to passionate advocacy for an idea held sacred. These core beliefs are so powerful that they guide our behaviors and provide us with an expectation of whether a social environment will be rewarding or threatening. It’s no surprise, then, that the ideas we hold sacred can prevent us from understanding perspectives of people who might not share our values — like those cat or dog people.
This evangelism explains why trying to move the needle on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues is so challenging. The more passionate you are about an issue, the more people might stop listening to you simply because what you’re saying goes against one of their core values. Here’s how you can better understand and solve the conundrum.
Passion primes for threat
The more passionate someone is about a subject, the less likely they are to consider an opposing viewpoint, or one that they perceive as a threat. The threat and reward survival mechanism in our brain triggers a fight-or-flight response that often stems from triggers within five domains of social experience, including one of status. Feeling valued is critical to our sense of belonging in a group, so it’s no surprise that our brains seek respect and become threatened when someone suggests otherwise.
We constantly scan our environment for potential threats, so when someone tries to change our mind it can be an accidental trigger to our status — and therefore, the way we view ourselves as part of the world — sending us into protection mode. For example, if you’re passionate about raw goat milk being legally available for babies with mothers who can’t lactate, and you enthusiastically ask someone for their support at a rally, you can unintentionally make them feel attacked if they’re a microbiologist and equally passionate that pasteurization is safer. The intent may have been to help others, but it’s unlikely to make everyone feel that way.
Even when someone thoughtfully approaches a person and says, “I challenge your thinking on the subject of equity and offer another viewpoint to consider,” it may be perceived as, “There’s something wrong with you; you need to change.” A signal like that could be viewed as a social threat and lead to either an argument or avoidance.
The second thing that happens in the evangelical conundrum is a threat to a person’s autonomy, another domain of our social threat and reward system that stems from our need for a sense of control. A person challenging another’s passionate belief system may be perceived as saying, “Here’s how you need to think or act, which is not the way you want to.” When the speaker implies there’s only one correct way of thinking, the listener is likely to rebel against this attempted control.
Getting people on the same page
Knowing that it’s difficult to get people to align their passionate ideas with your own, here are three strategies for solving the conundrum:
Start by reminding others what you have in common because until you’re within their in-group, what you say may be perceived as a threat. One method for broadening your in-group is to find, express, and agree on shared goals. Using the dog versus cat person example, if you’re talking to a dog person, try discussing how you want to end pit bull breed discrimination and how the research suggests it’s unfounded. This connection over a shared goal of animal welfare may help activate a toward state in their brain, priming them for a positive engagement.
Once you have an attentive in-group audience, find a story to tell. Storytelling is the brain’s natural way of encoding new information and a comfortable process for a listener receiving new information. It also helps to foster better communication among individuals, synchronizing neural activity in the speaker and listener. To help your story land well, try a non-threatening plot, like when your neighbor adopted the sweetest pit bull puppy, and how the entire street pulled together to convince the homeowners’ association to change their discriminatory pet bylaws. Stories are an enjoyable and safe way to learn lessons and keep your audience wanting to hear more. And who doesn’t love a good puppy story?
Finally, help the listener have an insight about seeing the world differently. By allowing them to come to their own realization of why the issue is important, and what they must do to move the story along, you may be able to activate the ‘will’ network in their brain, engaging motivational circuitry and leading to a feeling of reward largely driven by the release of dopamine. In fact, these areas of the brain are also thought to overlap with our sense of self and core values.
By enabling others to generate their own insights in relation to your story, they will be intrinsically driven to act, and the plot of your story will also align with their own personal values. One way of generating insight is to ask a question designed to make a broader connection and leave space to reflect, such as, “Why do you think people hate pit bulls so much, even though it’s unfounded? Do you think that same reasoning applies to diversity issues?”
Focus your efforts on the middle of the bell curve
If you take an issue like equity and look at where everyone in an organization lands on it, they generally form a bell curve: A small group passionately advocates for it, another small group actively pushes back, and a sweet spot in the middle generally supports it. That middle is where the contagious power of social norms draws the biggest crowds and where you should therefore focus your efforts. Social norms drive behavior change because people assume others are behaving a certain way. When that “aha!” moment happens with enough people, it could really move the needle on your DEI initiatives, but only if we all share and listen to each others’ stories.
Here’s a clip of David Rock speaking about the bell curve and DEI strategy at the 2020 NeuroLeadership Summit.