2016

17 August 2016: It’s difficult to change people’s minds

I enjoy reading thoughtful articles. Thoughtful in this case likely eliciting another descriptor from others: boring. You see, facts are essential, valued pieces of information in my universe, even those that contradict cherished beliefs. In times past, I believed in absurd notions: Santa, the swaying of trees causing wind, and an open and embracing Republican Party. Detaching from that thinking wasn’t always smooth, but facts intervened and intellectual honesty demanded such.

Not everyone practices the art of being open and willing to discard unsubstantiated beliefs in the light of new information. Indeed, it’s a tried and true practice for many to deny evidence and double down on suppositions. And efforts to sway them are destined to be less than successful if not abject failures. In the end, there’s no point in arguing with stupid.

Okay, I’m not being politically correct by calling ideologues, fundamentalists, and other rabid souls locked into a personal fantasy world of what is true—e.g., Holocaust and climate change deniers—stupid. And compounding that egregious offense against journalistic propriety, employing sarcasm is doing nothing to promote the understanding of my point. It looks as if I am 0 for 2. One more whiff and I am out!

So how about this? The more I persist in presenting evidence that a cherished belief is demonstrably false, it’s all the more likely you will continue to insist your erroneous belief to be true as time goes on.

Buzzer sound! True!

For many, the purpose of investigation and research is not to find true and correct data, but to find that which validates already held positons and assumptions, even if those beliefs are malarkey or just plain bull****. Further, people regularly fall for hucksters and snake oil salesmen, the pitchers of such nonsense. It’s the reason for Trump’s success, both during his pre-presidential run days and today. Instead of Art of the Deal as a title for Trump’s autobiography, calling it The Art of Bamboozling Suckers would be more fitting.

In a recent Washington Post column, David Ignatius explored the phenomenon by studying studies made by social scientists, you know the pointy-headed types that “don’t know nuthin.” What the PHs discovered is that not only do people cling to cherished beliefs in the face of contrary evidence, but using logic, verifiable data, and science can have little power to persuade them otherwise. In other words, people will believe what they choose to believe.

“Basically, the studies show that attempts to refute false information often backfire and lead people to hold on to their misperceptions even more strongly,” Ignatius notes.

Adding insult to intellectual injury, “arguing the facts doesn’t help — in fact, it makes the situation worse” according to Christopher Graves, the global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations in a February 2015 Harvard Business Review article. Graves referenced his work about getting people to shift their outlook on the myth of childhood vaccines causing autism. What he found out confirmed the “confirmation bias” psychologist Charles Lord presented in 1979, which posits people “tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe,” as Ignatius puts it.

Or as Graves says it, “Instead of changing their minds, most will dig in their heels and cling even more firmly to their originally held views.”

The reason is that in the face of fear, rational thought no longer controls. Emotion is at the helm. Fight or flight. Kill ‘em before they kill us. A summation of the Trump campaign message, eh?

“Refutations can threaten people, rather than convince them,” writes Ignatius. “Graves noted that if people feel attacked, they resist the facts all the more.”

All’s not lost, though. What causes some to shift their thinking is whether the information is presented devoid of emotion or presented with a “compelling alternative explanation.” Albeit, aha moments are rare, but they can happen.

So what can we take away from this? One conclusion might be not to waste your breath “cause you don’t know nuthin.” On the other hand, presenting evidence devoid of emotion without arguing or, in my case, sarcasm might plant a seed.

Finally, if all else fails, simply accept the old truism: Ignorance is bliss.

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