In the 1950s, Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger described a famous case study in psychology by commenting that “a man with a conviction is a hard man to change.” His comment was made after he, along with several of his colleagues, infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens.
Through the group’s leader, Dorothy Martin, the aliens have a date of an “Earth-rendering cataclysm”: December 21, 1954. Some of Martin’s followers quit their jobs, ready to be rescued by a flying saucer. When the prophecy failed, Festinger and his team were present. The psychologist was determined to see how people so emotionally invested in the belief system would react when the date came and went.
After a few moments of confusion, the team began rationalizing. A new message arrived that noted they had all been spared at the last minute.
“The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction,” Festinger wrote.
And from that day forward, the Seekers started to proselytize—losing their jobs and credibility in the process.
While that seems like an extreme example, it does illustrate the idea, “that our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions.”
“This tendency toward so-called ‘motivated reasoning’ helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, ‘death panels,’ the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else,” Mother Jones writes. “It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.”
The idea stems from the idea that reasoning is actually suffused with emotion—they are inseparable. In fact, or positive or negative feelings about peoples or ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts. Essentially, we push threatening information away and hold close to ‘friendly’ information. Reasoning comes later, but our quick-fire emotions can quickly put us on a path that is highly biased—especially if it’s something they feel strongly about.
“They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs, and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing,” says political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University. Essentially, when people are ‘reasoning’ they are actually collecting evidence that bolsters their own beliefs.
There are three most common cognitive biases among people:
This is the “tendency to look for or interpret information that confirms your preconceptions.” Whether you do this by visiting political websites that hold the same opinions or surrounding yourself with friends who share your own beliefs, your brain is helping you confirm that you have made the ‘correct’ choice.
Priming is “an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another stimulus.” It is exposure to something that affects your behavior in some way, without you being aware of the earlier influence. An example would be craving Italian food after watching ‘The Godfather.’
The Framing Effect is “reacting to a particular choice in different ways depending on whether it is presented as a loss or a gain.” This is when you come to different conclusions about the same problem, depending on how the information is presented. Language plays a crucial role in framing and can evoke completely different reactions.
Source: Mother Jones, Pick The Brain