Facts Don't Change Minds

The Boston Globe had a fascinating story a few days ago called How Facts Backfire. You should really give it a read. It talks about how, even with facts and irrefutable evidence in front of you, it’s really difficult for you to change your mind. In fact, often times it has the opposite effect: you get more entrenched in your beliefs. That’s right: hearing facts that are contrary to your beliefs entrench you further in your false beliefs most of the time.

This sure puts a damper on political persuasion. Now I know why I can never win arguments with my Uncle Warren on Thanksgiving Day.

If you think that you — my loyal dozen infovegan readers — are immune to this and that your brilliant political mind is more open than a Unitarian church on Sunday morning, you are wrong. Your mind’s about as closed as the Senate cloak room. The ones with the strongest political opinions, according to political studies, are the ones that are the least open to facts. According to a 2006 study — people who have a 90% handle on the facts are even more closed facts for that remaining 10%.

It’s because we get our egos wrapped up in our beliefs. We want to find facts that affirm our beliefs and therefore our egos. We’re constantly seeking out affirmations for our beliefs and with the Internet, it’s fairly easy to find spin on nice sounding opinions that do, no matter whether they’re misinformed or not. If you’re a liberal all you need do is sit before MSNBC and Keith Olberamann and Rachel Maddow will give you all the affirmation you need with their spin on the facts. And if you’re a conservative, just turn on Fox News and bliss out. Our media outlets are transforming themselves into partisan ego protectors and reaping the financial rewards of providing a warm safety blanket for the mind.

This is why data-driven political issues — whether it be campaign finance reform, tax reform, climate change, or healthcare, can’t see real debates until people’s information consumption habits start to change. In fact, according to this article, they often just entrench the incorrect people further. We’ll just see more nonsense. And if you think about it, it makes sense. These are people’s egos fighting for survival. In order to get to a more fact-based electorate, we’ve first got to get an electorate with a different relationship to information.

We’ve also got to change how our inter-personal political discourse works if we want to do anything other than waste our time. In a study done by Brendan Nyhan (he’s @brendannyhan on twitter), it’s shown that a little bit of self-affirmation goes a long way in opening up the mind to oppositional facts.

Finally, we must look at information as something to be selectively consumed and specifically look at information that affirms of our beliefs as sugar: sure, it is necessary but too much of it makes you bounce off the walls. Information isn’t something that can or should be consumed without awareness. Just as we treat food as something to selectively consume in order to keep our bodies healthy, so should we consume our information.

Yes, I get the irony of talking about an article that affirms my beliefs while writing an article about limiting your amount of belief-affirmation.

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