Why we believe utter crap

Are we doomed to believe things that are demonstrably false?

Brendan Nyhan (Dukie!) has devoted much of his career to fighting falsehoods, and he is depressed by a three-year study he conducted to try change beliefs on vaccination:

The first leaflet—focussed on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism—seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect.

Oh dear. That’s not good.

The theory is that one’s sense of self is threatened if you’re confronted with the idea that you’re wrong. So here’s the clever but difficult solution: Make people believe they’ve arrived at the correct answer on their own.

Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without.

So yelling at people that “the grownups are talking” might not work.

At least, not immediately. But I’m a little more optimistic than that. From my own experience, I can think of things I used to argue that I now know to be false — creationism, the infinite superiority of prog rock to pop music, etc. — and I can see how my beliefs changed not in one argument but over a period of time.

And experience forces us to change as well. I recently chatted with a high school friend who worries that I’ve been corrupted by being around all these media and government types. Not so, I said. I’m the same person I was in high school. But my experiences have changed me.

It’s simple common sense. If you’ve never met any Muslims or gay people, you’re more likely to harbor prejudice than you are after you meet them. If you’ve never seen any hard-working poor people, it’s easier to scapegoat them as lazy leeches. If you’ve never met any charitable Christians, it’s easy to stereotype them based on the snake-oil salesmen who dominate the airwaves.

But are some people hard-wired to resist such change? That’s what this piece on right-wing thought and “psychological origins of political ideology argues.

Again and again, when they take the widely accepted Big Five personality traits test, liberals tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions—openness: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people—and conservatives score higher on conscientiousness: the desire for order, structure, and stability.

I’m still skeptical. I know too many “liberals” who like “order, structure and stability” — that’s what Europe’s socialized programs offer, after all.

But I do firmly believe people are ingrained with certain fears. And today’s propagandists are all too good at exploiting them. That’s why people believe their freedoms are being taken away by the slightest measure of gun control. Or that Putin is going to go marching through Europe after he gobbles up Ukraine. Or that “genetic modification” is going to turn their produce into radioactive carcinogens.

So I think the next level of research is this: How do you counter propaganda? Censoring Fox News and Jenny McCarthy won’t do it. It has to be something that works to assuage those fears.

Update: I checked out Brendan Nyhan’s Twitter feed and found something I had to add:

But the evidence suggests the Tea Party, like my ninth-grade belief in creationism, is burning itself out.

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This entry was posted in cynicism, philosophy, psychology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Why we believe utter crap

  1. J.P. Swing says:

    I’ve always felt that narcissism and paranoia are over-represented in the Tea Party. Don’t have to be a psychiatrist to figure that out, I’ll admit.

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