I was browsing around this morning and ran into a rather grim article over at the Boston Globe titled How Facts Backfire. It highlights psychological research which uncovers the interesting pattern that when people are deeply committed to a particular opinion, showing them facts that prove them conclusively wrong doesn’t change their opinion. It actually makes it stronger.
This bias also works on the positive side of course. We’ll gladly accept “facts” that confirm our opinions.
There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as “motivated reasoning.” Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.
Jumping to conclusions is actually a mental shortcut that served us well in survival situations. It can be unhealthy to stop and ponder whether this particular lion, unlike the last one you met, might in fact be friendly. Doubt and hesitation are unwelcome when decisive action is needed.
But this survival instinct can backfire, and it can be used against us to manipulate us by our leaders, our culture, and even our religions. Research shows that the stronger and more deeply held our opinions, the less likely we are to be swayed by any facts. And while we have no problem seeing this tendency in people who agree with us, the trick is to see it in ourselves.
The best defense against this and other cognitive biases is to be aware of them and to
seriously ask ourselves, especially with regard to our dearest opinions, to which of them we might be falling victim. I find it very helpful to make myself clearly and honestly adopt the motto, “I might be wrong”.
Many of my most transformative and wonderful experiences in life have been the result of discovering I was wrong about something. I’ve gotten to the point where I actually relish the th
rill of uncovering some new opinion or aspect of myself where false ideas are lurking. To find them opens us up to new experiences and new learning. Learn to embrace them.
As for convincing the unwilling of their errors, the article in the Globe is less than optimistic. As Von Schiller put it, “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain”. Lord Acton was a bit kinder, and put it like this:
“There are two things which cannot be attacked in front: ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They can only be shaken by the simple development of the contrary qualities. They will not bear discussion.”
The Globe article tends to agree. While occasionally a brutal assault of facts will change an entrenched opinion, the only thing that seemed to work well in changing wrong opinions was an overall increase in the opinion-holder’s self esteem. This makes perfect sense, as when we become identified with our opinions, they become part of our ego structure. To lose an opinion to which we’ve become attached is to lose a part of ourselves. Only if we have a strong self-worth are we comfortable risking that kind of danger.
At the bottom of it all, the primary negative emotion in this and so many other things is fear. Our little ego’s fear of being further diminished by having the ideas it associates with damaged. By identifying, instead, with our higher selves, we learn to trust. We feel safe opening ourselves up to change, because we have faith that our true selves will survive that change. We develop an attitude of love and acceptance toward the universe, and, as the writer of First John says, perfect love casts out fear.