Thursday, August 11, 2022

Cognitive biases and brain biology help explain why facts don’t change minds by Keith M. Bellizzi

 


Rejecting what contradicts your beliefs

…In an ideal world, rational people who encounter new evidence that contradicts their beliefs would evaluate the facts and change their views accordingly. But that’s generally not how things go in the real world.

Partly to blame is a cognitive bias that can kick in when people encounter evidence that runs counter to their beliefs. Instead of reevaluating what they’ve believed up until now, people tend to reject the incompatible evidence. Psychologists call this phenomenon belief perseverance. Everyone can fall prey to this ingrained way of thinking.

Being presented with facts – whether via the news, social media or one-on-one conversations – that suggest their current beliefs are wrong causes people to feel threatened. This reaction is particularly strong when the beliefs in question are aligned with your political and personal identities. It can feel like an attack on you if one of your strongly held beliefs is challenged.

Confronting facts that don’t line up with your worldview may trigger a “backfire effect,” which can end up strengthening your original position and beliefs, particularly with politically charged issues. Researchers have identified this phenomenon in a number of studies, including ones about opinions toward climate change mitigation policies and attitudes toward childhood vaccinations.

Focusing on what confirms your beliefs

There’s another cognitive bias that can get in the way of changing your mind, called confirmation bias. It’s the natural tendency to seek out information or interpret things in a way that supports your existing beliefsInteracting with like-minded people and media reinforces confirmation bias. The problem with confirmation bias is that it can lead to errors in judgment because it keeps you from looking at a situation objectively from multiple angles.

A 2016 Gallup poll provides a great example of this bias. In just one two-week period spanning the 2016 election, both Republicans and Democrats drastically changed their opinions about the state of the economy – in opposite directions.

But nothing was new with the economy. What had changed was that a new political leader from a different party had been elected. The election outcome changed survey respondents’ interpretation of how the economy was doing – a confirmation bias led Republicans to rate it much higher now that their guy would be in charge; Democrats the opposite.

Brain’s hard-wiring doesn’t help

Cognitive biases are predictable patterns in the way people think that can keep you from objectively weighing evidence and changing your mind. Some of the basic ways your brain works can also work against you on this front.

Your brain is hard-wired to protect you – which can lead to reinforcing your opinions and beliefs, even when they’re misguided. Winning a debate or an argument triggers a flood of hormones, including dopamine and adrenaline. In your brain, they contribute to the feeling of pleasure you get during sex, eating, roller-coaster rides – and yes, winning an argument. That rush makes you feel good, maybe even invulnerable. It’s a feeling many people want to have more often.

Moreover, in situations of high stress or distrust, your body releases another hormone, cortisol. It can hijack your advanced thought processes, reason and logic – what psychologists call the executive functions of your brain. Your brain’s amygdala becomes more active, which controls your innate fight-or-flight reaction when you feel under threat.

In the context of communication, people tend to raise their voice, push back and stop listening when these chemicals are coursing through their bodies. Once you’re in that mindset, it’s hard to hear another viewpoint. The desire to be right combined with the brain’s protective mechanisms make it that much harder to change opinions and beliefs, even in the presence of new information.

You can train yourself to keep an open mind

In spite of the cognitive biases and brain biology that make it hard to change minds, there are ways to short-circuit these natural habits.

Work to keep an open mind. Allow yourself to learn new things. Search out perspectives from multiple sides of an issue. Try to form, and modify, your opinions based on evidence that is accurate, objective and verified.

Don’t let yourself be swayed by outliers. For example, give more weight to the numerous doctors and public health officials who describe the preponderance of evidence that vaccines are safe and effective than what you give to one fringe doctor on a podcast who suggests the opposite.

Be wary of repetition, as repeated statements are often perceived as more truthful than new information, no matter how false the claim may be. Social media manipulators and politicians know this all too well.

Presenting things in a nonconfrontational way allows people to evaluate new information without feeling attacked. Insulting others and suggesting someone is ignorant or misinformed, no matter how misguided their beliefs may be, will cause the people you are trying to influence to reject your argument. Instead, try asking questions that lead the person to question what they believe. While opinions may not ultimately change, the chance of success is greater.

Recognize we all have these tendencies and respectfully listen to other opinions. Take a deep breath and pause when you feel your body ramping up for a fight. Remember, it’s OK to be wrong at times. Life can be a process of growth.

-Keith M. Bellizzi, Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences, University of Connecticut


Commentary:

However, putting cognitive and confirmation bias aside, let's take for instance the case of Donald J. Trump and the people who follow him. According to neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, Some people will support him out of ignorance. Basically, they are under-informed or misinformed about the issues at hand.

Even when Trump consistently lies: some people simply take his word for it. This is called “The Dunning-Kruger Effect. [In other words], the problem isn’t just that they are misinformed; it’s that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed, which creates a double burden [for them]. Studies have shown that people who lack expertise in some area of knowledge often have a cognitive bias that prevents them from realizing that they lack expertise [or knowledge and intelligence].”

As psychologist David Dunning puts it in an op-ed for Politico, The knowledge and intelligence that are required to [understand an issue at hand] are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is [unwitting] — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains [completely oblivious] that one is [incapable of understanding complex issues]. This includes political judgment: These people cannot be reached because they mistakenly believe they are correct [without any use of logic, inferential and divergent thinking, analysis, synthesis, common sense, evidence and facts].”

Furthermore, there are people who continue to support him and choose to ignore his reprehensible ignorance, egregious incompetence, intentional maliciousness, anti-social personality disorder, pathological narcissism, psychopathic dominance, impulsivity, remorselessness, dangerous treachery, thievery, cheating and lying. Why? One can assume they support him because of their own divisiveness, instability, impetuousness, insecurity, xenophobia, racism and fear….

-Glen Brown


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