Why you should distrust your beliefs

argument.jpgImage from Farnam Street

“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” — H. L. Mencken

The evidence is overwhelming: Trump is an imbecile, and a dangerous one. The frequency of his lies are astonishing. For a (supposedly) sane person like me, the fact that he was ever voted into office, and continues to serve as the head of state, beggars belief. How can his supporters continue to stand by his side in the face of the lies, scandals, and clear evidence of Trump’s hilarious incompetency? How can they be so stupid?

Social psychology has the answer, and its implications are frightening. The phenomenon is known as motivated reasoning, and it causes us to blankly reject solid evidence that challenges our beliefs. Clearly, this can be a dangerous cognitive failing at certain times, such as voting for a president. There’s a few reasons why this phenomenon occurs:

Cognitive dissonance
This is the mental discomfort that you experience when your beliefs are challenged. Few people like discomfort, so we’ll do whatever we can to reduce it. The quickest way to neutralise cognitive dissonance is to simply reject the challenging idea; no effort needs to be expended to figure out whether the challenge is accurate. We can simply reject, regain our comfort, and move on. Default notions are much easier.

The alternative way to dispel discomfort is rationalisation, which we consider to be logical and accurate, but is actually just another way for us to reinforce our own idea. Reasoning is permeated with emotion – our feelings about an idea surface much faster than conscious, logical thought, so our first reaction to them is emotional, and therefore less likely to be based in reality.

“Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” —Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber

Our delicate egos
Much of our confidence is hinged on being right. Challenging a strongly-held belief is like taking a large stick and bashing somebody’s self-esteem with it. We want to protect ourselves at all cost, and the way that we do that is by rejecting conflicting evidence and holding onto our beliefs ever more tightly. In a sense, our beliefs are our identity, and threatening our identity is a dangerous attack which we’ll defend against using the strongest means possible: outright rejection of the belief, or rationalisation.

“The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth.” — Jonathan Haidt

Our tribe protects us
Our primitive times instilled a sense of tribal loyalty, which ensured our survival. If we were foolish enough to have coveted our neighbour’s delectable chimp wife, and upon discovery were cast out of the tribe, that probably would have meant death. To this day, our tribal instincts are incredibly strong. Republicans stick with Republicans, Democrats with Democrats. If you challenge a core belief of my political party, I’m very likely to outrightly reject it.

We’ve confirmed our beliefs extensively
“I don’t care whether you’re presenting overwhelming, contrary evidence to me, I’ve spent hours reading about this topic myself.”

What has actually happened is that the hours were spent reading every piece of content that agreed with my opinion, and completely ignoring that which disagreed. This is known as confirmation bias. 

1_yN2Xhv-M5PPerWzDVNt3sw.jpegImage from Chainsawsuit.com

We’re far from logical
Though we might like to consider ourselves as straightforward, logical people, the reality is that much of our decision making involves a good deal of emotion. We wouldn’t even be able to make a decision if we were 100% logical, as discovered by an unfortunate gentleman with a brain tumour. Clearly, the ludicrous man that is Donald Trump isn’t a logical choice for president, but emotionally, his supporters think that he is.

As an intelligent human, you might assume that you’ll be able to outsmart the devlish process of motivated reasoning. You’d be totally wrong – smart people are even more susceptible, because their increased levels of knowledge just make it harder for them to let go of their belief.

We have a stake in the belief
Maybe we just purchased a gleaming, curvaceous diesel Jaguar XE, and desperately want to believe that climate change is nonsense, so that we don’t feel bad about pumping diesel fumes into the atmosphere. Climate change is invisible and intangible, but our sense of moral worthiness is close to hand. The scientists must be wrong.

**

Motivated reasoning is one of the culprits behind absurdities such as flat-earth theory, anti-vaxxing, and climate-change denial. The first is mildly humourous, the second will kill innocent children, and the third might end up killing a quarter of a million people a year. Obviously, what we choose to believe can have a devastating impact on our species, so being aware of motivated reasoning, and knowing how you might be able to combat it, is of urgent importance.

Here’s some ways in which you might battle your own destructive biases:

Be skeptical about your own beliefs
In light of the fact that our identity is pinged on our beliefs, this can be immensely demanding. We want to believe that we’re smart, reasonable human beings with a good idea of what’s going on around us. Being skeptical about our own beliefs might be a form of self-flagellation, in which we inflict bloody pain to cast out sinful, factually incorrect demons. Casting intentional doubt on our beliefs will cause us mental suffering, but the reward is more accurate reflection of reality, which could be the difference between life and death.

Check the credibility of your information
Tabloid newspapers aren’t credible. The ten facts about immigration that your redneck cousin posted on Facebook probably isn’t credible. The mysterious bleatings of an evangelical Christian on TV isn’t credible. It’s your responsibility to figure out whether your information is coming from an unbiased source, and so much of what we receive every day is biased. Everyone has desires that they’re motivated to achieve, and they won’t think twice about bending the truth in order to achieve them. Even if the person you’re speaking to isn’t trying to achieve a conscious desire, they’re still unconsciously trying to affirm their beliefs in order to protect their own egos.

Watch out for cognitive dissonance
When your beliefs are challenged, feeling uncomfortable is a cue to be cautious – you’ll want to seek out affirming evidence to remove the uncomfortableness. At this point you might try to deliberately soften your attitude, and consider whether the opposing belief may be correct. The more value that you place on your belief, the stronger the cognitive dissonance, and the harder it’ll be to persuade you otherwise. Keep a close eye on this, and have the courage to change your mind if you’re faced with strong opposing evidence.

Consider how your belief might be benefiting you
What do you gain by holding onto your belief? Maybe your entire family are republicans, and by switching sides, you’d no longer have their loyalty or respect? Maybe it’s just peace of mind? For climate-change deniers, the idea that we’re destroying our own planet has distressing consequences for us, and we’d rather not believe it to be true.

Work on your self-esteem
Research has shown that the better your self-esteem, the more willing you’ll be to accept threatening information, because you won’t need to be so protective of your beliefs. A much easier way of doing this is to consider something good about yourself; some personal value that you’ve achieved. This improves your confidence and makes you more accepting of challenging arguments.

Get off social media
Social media apps are motivated reasoning on crack – your friends probably hold the same beliefs as you, spread the same beliefs as you, and reinforce the same beliefs as you, regardless of whether they’re true. The Russians knew this, and used it effectively to help Trump win the election.

**

It’s easy to poke fun at Trump supporters, until you realise that we’re subject to the exact same cognitive biases as them. In another life, you could have been a Trump supporter, or a pitiable flat-earther. Fighting the phenomenon of motivated reasoning is difficult, but a worthy pursuit. Without this laborious undertaking, we might find ourselves harnessing a belief that will literally help to destroy our own planet. It’s urgently important for us to reject bad ideas and promote good ones. The truth is out there, and much of it doesn’t yet reside in your head. Have the courage to pursue the truth, and in the process you might just help to save our species.

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