By Liliana Zylstra
Facts don’t care about feelings—but we need to.
Working as a pro-life canvasser has given me the opportunity to speak to hundreds of people across the United States about abortion. I’ve knocked on doors in several states with the purpose of informing voters when abortion is on their ballot. The people I get to talk to are often motivated by a mix of complex emotions and life experiences. I have heard suburban fathers tell me they fear what would happen to their teenage daughters if they became pregnant. Elderly women recount watching their friends struggle through unexpected pregnancies because they lacked the support pregnancy requires.
Talking to our pro-choice neighbors is a challenge, but it is impossible to build a culture that values life without having these difficult conversations. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade more than a year ago, it is clear that the pro-life movement must focus not only on political and legal battles but also on the battle for public opinion. In my quest to become a better pro-life advocate, I’ve found insight in an unexpected place: the strategies of pro-abortion canvassers.
I stumbled across a book by science journalist David McRaney, with an intriguing title, “How Minds Change.” The book explores the principles of human behavior that explain persuasion. McRaney interviews representatives from several organizations focused on training members to change people’s minds. Each group follows a series of steps designed to create an environment in which a conversationalist is most likely to question their own beliefs.
The Persuasion Tactic
One of these organizations is the Leadership Lab, a left-leaning political activism group, dedicated to building public support on various issues, including “abortion access.” They employ a tactic called “Deep Canvassing,” which has, “been proven to change hearts and minds and find common ground across differences.” The technique accomplishes this by “approaching voters with emotional honesty and vulnerability, committing to curiosity rather than assumptions or judgment, and staying grounded in our real lived experiences instead of opinions.”
Deep canvassing is a relatively new technique, yet research shows that it works extraordinarily well. According to McRaney, one study demonstrated that it was “102 times more effective than traditional canvassing, television, radio, direct mail, and phone banking combined.”
Psychologists have identified two routes to persuasion, the central route and the peripheral route. Central processing deals with straightforward facts and data, while peripheral processing picks up on emotional cues and subconscious associations. As the Leadership Lab discovered, sometimes trying to convince someone that they’re wrong in a straightforward way can lead nowhere. Many people have complex emotional reasons for their beliefs, often connected to personal experiences and a sense of group identity. These people will keep coming up with new arguments to defend their views unless you can identify the real reasons underlying them. One volunteer who spoke to McRaney noted that “justifications can be endless, spawning like heads of a hydra. If you cut away one, two more will appear to take its place.” The Leadership Lab has perfected the art of “gaining access to that emotional state” in which real mind change can happen.
The first step is asking the person how they feel about the issue on a scale from 1-10. In my experience as a canvasser, I’ve also found that these clarifying questions can be helpful. Personally, I’ve adopted the practice of asking people whether they identify as pro-life, pro-choice, or somewhere in the middle. Questions like these acknowledge and give a voice to the conflicting feelings that many people have about abortion. Next, the Leadership Lab volunteer who wants to change pro-life minds will invite the person to share how they first heard about abortion or what things have happened in their life that shaped their views. The volunteer will often share their own experiences, as long as the focus remains on the other person. Instead of directly challenging conclusions, they just listen.
After this, they will introduce new information aimed at evoking an emotional response. In one instance, a volunteer named Steve offered to show a video to a woman who was undecided about abortion. The clip showed a woman who had experienced an unplanned pregnancy. She talked about her reasons for wanting an abortion and how she believed that having her child would cause hardship. This anecdote is designed to make the undecided woman begin contemplating rather than defending her views.
The Leadership Lab and the other groups McRaney writes about have a few tactics in common. They understand the role of peripheral processing and use this to their advantage. They define terms and ask for a numerical level of confidence in a claim. This encourages clarity and reflection. Lastly, they understand that straightforward arguments alone rarely work.
As pro-life persuaders, we can use this same knowledge in our conversations.
Research on group identity shows that people tend to simplify the world into those who are “like them” and those who are “other.” They may value group identity more than being right. Many pro-choice people are prejudiced against pro-lifers, viewing us as old, ignorant, religious bigots who want to control women. Because they can’t look past this stereotype and because they want to continue viewing themselves as smart, thoughtful, and caring, they can’t even begin to engage with pro-life arguments.
Part of the solution may be to, like the Leadership Lab, get them to contemplate rather than defend. Don’t challenge their beliefs for them. Help them do it themselves. Help them see that we are not on different teams; we are on the same team, working to find truth together. We can’t truly change other people’s minds—we can only help them change their own minds. We must have some kind of common ground, otherwise attempts at persuasion are pointless. The goal is to show the pro-choice person that abortion is inconsistent with the values they already hold, they just haven’t realized it yet.
One Leadership Lab volunteer told new recruits, “Facts don’t work… find out why they feel the way they do.” I disagree, facts do work. Unlike pro-choice canvassers, we have the facts of human embryology and moral philosophy on our side. We just might need to get better at removing the barriers that keep people from seeing those facts.
About the Author
Liliana Zylstra is a junior communication arts major at Grove City College. In addition to working as a student marketing fellow, she serves as president of the school’s Life Advocates club. Lily has canvassed for pro-life candidates and legislation in 5 different states as part of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s student program. She also completed an internship with SBA’s communication department in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2023.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the writer alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grove City College, the Institute for Faith and Freedom, or their affiliates.