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Why Do People Believe Stupid Stuff, Even When They're Confronted With the Truth?

The "backfire effect" helps explain how strange, ancient and kooky beliefs resist science, reason and reportage.

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When our bathroom scale delivers bad news, we hop off and then on again, just to make sure we didn’t misread the display or put too much pressure on one foot. When our scale delivers good news, we smile and head for the shower. By uncritically accepting evidence when it pleases us, and insisting on more when it doesn’t, we subtly tip the scales in our favor.

- Psychologist Dan Gilbert in The New York Times

The backfire effect is constantly shaping your beliefs and memory, keeping you consistently leaning one way or the other through a process psychologists call biased assimilation. Decades of research into a variety of cognitive biases shows you tend to see the world through thick, horn-rimmed glasses forged of belief and smudged with attitudes and ideologies. When scientists had people watch Bob Dole debate Bill Clinton in 1996, they found supporters before the debate tended to believe their preferred candidate won. In 2000, when psychologists studied Clinton lovers and haters throughout the Lewinsky scandal, they found Clinton lovers tended to see Lewinsky as an untrustworthy homewrecker and found it difficult to believe Clinton lied under oath. The haters, of course, felt quite the opposite. Flash forward to 2011, and you have Fox News and MSNBC battling for cable journalism territory, both promising a viewpoint which will never challenge the beliefs of a certain portion of the audience. Biased assimilation guaranteed.

Biased assimilation doesn’t only happen in the presence of current events. Michael Hulsizer of Webster University, Geoffrey Munro at Towson, Angela Fagerlin at the University of Michigan, and Stuart Taylor at Kent State conducted a study in 2004 in which they asked liberals and conservatives to opine on the 1970 shootings at Kent State where National Guard soldiers fired on Vietnam War demonstrators killing four and injuring nine.

As with any historical event, the details of what happened at Kent State began to blur within hours. In the years since, books and articles and documentaries and songs have plotted a dense map of causes and motivations, conclusions and suppositions with points of interest in every quadrant. In the weeks immediately after the shooting, psychologists surveyed the students at Kent State who witnessed the event and found that 6 percent of the liberals and 45 percent of the conservatives thought the National Guard was provoked. Twenty-five years later, they asked current students what they thought. In 1995, 62 percent of liberals said the soldiers committed murder, but only 37 percent of conservatives agreed. Five years later, they asked the students again and found conservatives were still more likely to believe the protesters overran the National Guard while liberals were more likely to see the soldiers as the aggressors. What is astonishing, is they found the beliefs were stronger the more the participants said they knew about the event. The bias for the National Guard or the protesters was stronger the more knowledgeable the subject. The people who only had a basic understanding experienced a weak backfire effect when considering the evidence. The backfire effect pushed those who had put more thought into the matter farther from the gray areas.

Geoffrey Munro at the University of California and Peter Ditto at Kent State University concocted a series of fake scientific studies in 1997. One set of studies said homosexuality was probably a mental illness. The other set suggested homosexuality was normal and natural. They then separated subjects into two groups; one group said they believed homosexuality was a mental illness and one did not. Each group then read the fake studies full of pretend facts and figures suggesting their worldview was wrong. On either side of the issue, after reading studies which did not support their beliefs, most people didn’t report an epiphany, a realization they’ve been wrong all these years. Instead, they said the issue was something science couldn’t understand. When asked about other topics later on, like spanking or astrology, these same people said they no longer trusted research to determine the truth. Rather than shed their belief and face facts, they rejected science altogether.

 
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