When was the last time you had a productive, positive discussion about gun control, vaccinations, the correct positioning of one’s body during the National Anthem or the geometric shape of Earth?
When was the last time you positively interacted with someone whose opinion differs from yours? The last time you came away from a conversation with a better understanding of the other person’s beliefs? Considered their points, conceded there might be some truth to them?
The truth is, facts just don’t matter to some of us.
Logically speaking, facts that contradict a person’s beliefs should alter that person’s beliefs and become part of their knowledge set, going forward. But that’s not always how it works. Instead, researchers have found that deeply held convictions are only strengthened in some people when those beliefs are challenged by facts.
It’s called “The Backfire Effect.”
About 12 years ago, researchers from the University of Michigan and Georgia State University conducted a study in which participants were given a series of deliberately erroneous newspaper articles designed to reinforce false beliefs about American politics. Immediately after reading the initial stories, the study participants were given factual articles that corrected the first.
Regardless of their political leanings, most participants held on to the “fake news” presented in the initial stories when it supported their own views. They disregarded the factual articles, essentially claiming the whole truth had been withheld or even that the factual articles were part of a conspiracy.
If the reader didn’t agree with the information, then it wasn’t true.
Confirmation bias similarly affects the way we interpret and recall information, especially about particularly emotional or deep-rooted beliefs. We simply refuse to acknowledge facts that don’t support what we already have decided is our truth. We shout “Fake news!” in the same manner a child might stick his fingers in his ears and shout “Na na na na, I’m not listening to you!” when it’s time to pay attention.
To be certain no reason seeps through, we burrow into homes, communities and online forums full of like-minded people – echo chambers that repeat back to us the same opinion until it becomes more valuable to us than truth.
Aristotle wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” We as a society appear to be embracing denial, partly because we only entertain a thought – or a fact – long enough to toss it aside when it doesn’t support our established opinions.
We don't always have to agree – in fact, some might argue that we shouldn't always agree – but it can’t hurt to hear where the other side is coming from.
In a frighteningly polarized nation, let’s seek instead to be better educated. If nothing else, it can help us learn empathy and patience for those with whom we do not always agree.