“The very first thing we need to realize is that beliefs are like fast cars, designer shoes, chocolate cupcakes and exotic holidays: they affect our well-being and happiness. So just as we aspire to fill our fridge with fresh fare and our wardrobe with nice attire, we try to fill our minds with information that makes us feel strong and right, and to avoid information that makes us confused or insecure.”
“It’s not only in the domain of politics that people cherry-pick news; it is apparent when it comes to our health, wealth and relationships. Many individuals avoid medical screenings in an attempt to evade alarming information.”
Using . . .” non-invasive brain imaging techniques, my colleagues and I have recently gathered evidence that suggests our brain reacts to desirable information as it does to rewarding stimuli like food, and reacts to undesirable information as it does to aversive stimuli like electric shocks. So, just as we are motivated to seek food and avoid shocks, we are also motivated either to seek or avoid incoming information.”
“Of course, we do not always turn away from uncomfortable data. We do undergo medical tests, face our debts and occasionally read columns written by people who hold different political views than ours. But on average we are more likely to seek confirmation of what we believe (or want to believe.“
“Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as providing people with full and accurate information. When you provide someone with new data they quickly accept evidence that confirms their preconceived notions and assess counter evidence with a critical eye.“
“Such effects are examples of the confirmation bias. It is not new. But today, as information is more readily accessible and people are frequently exposed to different opinions and data points, this bias is likely to have an even greater role in shaping people’s beliefs — moving ideological groups to extremes.”
“And while you may assume such biases are a trait of the less intelligent, the opposite is true. Scientists discovered that those with stronger quantitative abilities are more likely to twist data at will. When volunteers in that study were given data about the effectiveness of gun control laws that did not support their views, they used their math skills not to draw more accurate conclusions, but to find fault with the numbers they were given.
Why have human beings’ brains evolved to discard perfectly valid information when it does not fit their preferred view? This seems like bad engineering, so why hasn’t this glitch been corrected?”
Confidently-held opinions are difficult to change.
“Cognitive scientists have proposed an intriguing answer: our brain assesses new information in light of the knowledge it has already stored, because in most cases that is, in fact, the optimal approach. More likely than not, when you encounter a piece of data that contradicts what you believe with confidence, that piece of data is in fact wrong.”
“They are even more difficult to change once people act on them. Research has shown that immediately after making an overt choice, our conviction strengthens as we tend to rationalize our choices to ourselves and others.”
“So while data is important for uncovering the truth, it is not enough for convincing people of that truth.”
“We should not, however, be discouraged. The solution, I believe, is not to fight the way our brain works, but to go along with it. We should take our biases into account and use them when trying to convey our truth.”