Cognitive Biases and Brain Biology Help Explain Why Facts Don’t Change Minds

Summary: Our worldview forms during childhood as a result of our socialization within a particular cultural context. Our views get reinforced over time by the social groups we keep, the media we consume, and even the way in which our brains are wired. Challenging our worldviews with facts can feel like an attack on our personal identities and can often result in hardening our positions. Researchers assess how we can open our minds and explore facts that may go against our personal worldviews.

Source: The Conversation

Facts First” is the tagline of a CNN branding campaign which contends that “once facts are established, opinions can be formed.” The problem is that while it sounds logical, this appealing assertion is a fallacy not supported by research.

Cognitive psychology and neuroscience studies have found that the exact opposite is often true when it comes to politics: People form opinions based on emotions, such as fear, contempt and anger, rather than relying on facts. New facts often do not change people’s minds.

I study human development, public health and behavior change. In my work, I see firsthand how hard it is to change someone’s mind and behaviors when they encounter new information that runs counter to their beliefs.

Your worldview, including beliefs and opinions, starts to form during childhood as you’re socialized within a particular cultural context. It gets reinforced over time by the social groups you keep, the media you consume, even how your brain functions. It influences how you think of yourself and how you interact with the world.

For many people, a challenge to their worldview feels like an attack on their personal identity and can cause them to harden their position. Here’s some of the research that explains why it’s natural to resist changing your mind – and how you can get better at making these shifts.

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.

This shows heads made of cogwheels
It can feel safer to block out contradictory information that challenges a belief. Image is in the public domain

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.

About this psychology research news

Author: Keith M. Bellizzi
Source: The Conversation
Contact: Keith M. Bellizzi – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

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  1. In second grade, we taught students the difference between fact and opinion, a fact being something that you can prove and an opinion being a strong belief. Mindset also plays a role in our acceptance of facts in that some people will listen calmly even when they don’t agree while others scream and yell and get violent thinking surely the louder they are and the more violent they become proves their point; open and closed mindset. After the past several years, I am of the belief, (my opinion), that some people are just wired differently. I am not on social media but I am currently watching webinars. I was shocked to see some of the comments, similar to those above that, first amendment aside, want me to ask are you an adult? The first comment mentions critical thinking skills, which we also taught in second grade. You sift through probable and plausible and come to a conclusion, sorting fact and opinion. Sadly, education in America has been dumbed down and the dumb (sorry) ones don’t know it.

  2. As an individual with a Ph.D. in brain research in learning acquisition, I am extremely aware of biases such as confirmation bias. I read this article with interest until the ridiculously biased statement about trusting medical doctors over a single fringe individual regarding vaccines.

    Well, duh.

    But what about hundreds of legitimate MDs who have thoroughly researched vaccine safety and have come to vastly different conclusions – with evidence – than other doctors who are spouting CDC ‘information’ without actually checking on the validity of the CDC studies?

    The argument provided in the article (reductio ad absurdum) was telling. And illogical.

    Be careful about being biased when pretending to provide legitimate information.

  3. Great article until the author used their own biases. The author should follow their own advice…having doctors repeat the message they were told to say by one source does not make it reliable. What people need to do is go to the root evidence and evaluate it using first principles. It is useless and dangerous to follow anyone when they can not provide proof which backs up their opinion. …and that opinion is not an expert one without data and it gets about as much weight as my neighbor’s dogs breakfast. History teaches us if we are only willing to learn from it.

  4. 9They were not actually using CNN as an example of the “truth”. They were using it as an example of how people think their opinions are formed beaded on facts, but are actually formed before facts come into play. If you had actually read that sentence correctly, then you would have understood what the author meant. They were not implying that CNN is the truth, nor was the author implying that CNN is not the truth.

  5. Garbage propaganda. Use your critical thinking against anyone pushing a medical procedure such as the “vaccine” so desperately. What do they want to put into people so badly?

  6. Great article. All the way up to the point where you blatantly showed your own bias calling dissenting opinion , “fringe”. Try to take a bit of your own advice.

    1. Right? Didn’t those “fringe” Dr’s (Malone, McCullough, etc.) ultimately be proven to be more right than wrong??

  7. Using CNN to illustrate about “facts” shows this writer does not know what facts are . CNN was the core of the Russia, Russia hoax about Trump. Regardless who you vote for, the entire Russia story was a fabrication. So, really, CNN is no one to use as a positive in a discussion of why people mistrust.
    Then , actual science is about probabilities, not facts. There are very few facts in science,if any . The action of science research is to replace yesterday’s mistaken “facts” with more correct ideas. All modern science is done as statistics with a stated P value that literally tells the probability of the research being wrong.
    Sadly, the word “fact” is really code for “political idea I want to put forward as true”.

  8. Thank you for your contribution. Your insights are ‘point-on’ with my core beliefs. I try, on a daily basis, to relay these concepts to others but find that it’s like ‘trying to teach a pig to sing’. I frequently wind up being frustrated while just annoying the pig. I wonder if shock collars would work?

  9. It will be nice to know the impact of doing regular awareness exercises and/or meditation on keeping the neural connections relaxed and hence more open to change. Would love to know if there is any research on it that you can share a link of or any post that I can read about it.

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