We all say we’re open-minded…
One of the more fascinating areas I’ve studied is “self-affirmation.” We all think of ourselves as good people. But in turn, when something challenges that identity, we put up psychological roadblocks to combat the threat.
That makes it really hard to change your beliefs. This is important to pretty much any arena you enter—personal finance, economics, politics, who should wash the dishes. We’ve all argued with someone who stuck to his guns in the face of mounting evidence against his or her position. And yet, I bet we’ve all been on the other side of that argument too.
Why the heck is it so hard to admit we’re wrong?
You’re less likely to change your mind if you have a low sense of self-worth.
About a year ago, political science professors Brendan Nyhan from the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler from Georgia State drew on psychological research to see if improving someone’s image of himself could make him more open to changing his mind.
To do this, they sampled a group of Republicans in 2008, a little while after the “surge” of American troops in Iraq and the subsequent reduction of insurgent attacks. (They sampled Democrats too, but the Republican results were more interesting.)
Before the sample, the researchers asked one group of Republicans to pick a moral value out of a list that was most important to them and write about a time that they embodied it. The other group was simply asked to write what they ate in the last two days.
They showed the Republicans a graph that clearly showed insurgent attacks had decreased as the number of troops in Iraq increased. Then, they asked if they supported troop withdrawal.
The Republicans who did not do the self-affirmation exercise became more opposed to troop withdrawal, consistent with the GOP position at the time. But the Republicans who did write about a value they embodied became more open to withdrawing troops.
Feeling better about yourself makes you more comfortable with changing your mind. It seems to be a logical extension that the more crummy you feel about yourself, the less likely you are to cave. Maybe that’s yet another reason why it’s so hard to sell a lousy stock and “lock in your losses.”
After we choose a belief system, we don’t accept evidence that challenges that belief.
Most scientists believe in the threat of global warming. That’s just a fact. And yet, public opinion is sharply divided over whether or not carbon gas emissions have or could warm the Earth over time. In fact, public opinion is actually sharply divided over whether or not that scientific consensus actually exists.
A group of law professors surveyed individuals on several divisive issues, such as global warming and gun control, and showed them evidence that seemed to support or contradict their positions. They were each given a set of opinions by experts and asked to interpret what the scientific consensus was. For example, someone might see a series of statements by scientists stating that global warming was a real threat along with one or two scientists who called global warming bunk.
No matter the evidence shown, those who identified with individualistic, pro-commerce values were more likely to see a lack of consensus on “anti-commerce” risks like global warming, whereas those who identified with egalitarian values were more likely to see consensus.
In other words, each group took the same evidence and used it to support their pre-defined beliefs. So next time you’re arguing with your pigheaded pro- or anti-global warming neighbor, keep in mind that it’s not that he’s being stubborn, it could actually be that he doesn’t interpret the evidence in the same way you do.
We adopt the beliefs of people we identify with.
I’m an equal-opportunity political hater. I support some Republican positions and some Democratic positions, but find the ways in which Democrats and Republicans support their positions ridiculous. It amounts to a bunch of rhetoric and name calling and never leads to progress on policy issues.
And in addition to that, ever notice that every Republican and Democrat seems to support nearly the entire slate of policy positions of their parties? Why should being a pro-lifer have any correlation with supporting tax cuts? Why would someone who’s pro-choice also support gun control? To quote Mugatu from Zoolander, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!
It turns out, we’re deeply susceptible to the values of our peers or, at least, whomever we identify as peers. In a study in the 1950s, researchers asked students from opposing Ivy League schools to watch a tape of a football game and count the number of violations they thought were committed by each team. The students consistently saw fewer violations committed by their own team than by the opposition.
Other scientists have run tests asking opposing teams to rate their teammates relative strengths against the opposition. Of course, those assigned to the red team suddenly find everyone wearing red as faster, stronger, taller, and generally better than everyone wearing blue.
This wouldn’t be so worrying if it stopped at football games. But unfortunately, the same tendency regularly translates to issues that influence society’s well-being.
In a paper published in the journal Nature, a Yale Law professor proposed a couple solutions that helped break down the team mentality that prevents a rational interpretation of facts. One idea was to present facts in such a way that didn’t seem to conflict with the opposing team’s values. For example, showing evidence of global warming doesn’t have to be “anti-business.” It could instead be a reason to develop nuclear energy plants.
Another idea was to have opinions in support of an anti-Republican or anti-Democratic issue come from fellow Democrats or Republicans. If a Republican comes out in support of the theory of global warming, other Republicans become more accepting of evidence that supports it. In effect, they can change their minds on an issue, without having to leave their team.
Keep all of this in mind the next time you find yourself on opposing sides of any issue, whether they be at home or in the workplace. If you’re having a big meeting at work to decide whether to pursue a new business venture, keep in mind that at some point, the discussion will cease to be about the facts, and start to be about each sides’ sense of self-worth.
Managing the emotional and psychological parts of the discussion will become even more important than presenting yet another set of facts that support your side. And hopefully, you’ll be more aware of your own susceptibility to throw reason out the window.