More on the emotion of belief

by John MacBeath Watkins

An article in the Boston Globe by Joe Keohane pulls together a lot of the research that's been done on 'backfire,' the tendency of people of firm belief to become only firmer in their belief when faced with facts that contradict those beliefs.

It's a basic tenet of democratic political theory that a well-informed electorate will make wise decisions.  But there is a body of research in political science that most people, faced with a news story that contradicts what they already believe, will instead of changing their minds become more firmly set in their belief.

In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, subjects were presented with a news article containing provably false claims that had been made by political figures, and presented with corrected information.  Neither conservatives or liberals changed their minds based on the corrections.  The conservatives became more firmly entrenched in their ideas, while the liberals continued to believe their misinformation with unchanged intensity.  The more firmly held the belief, the more backfire you get from presenting corrected information.

Keohane quotes Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study, saying “The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong.”  Interestingly, another study shows that self-esteem exercises before receiving the corrected information make people more open to changing their minds.  Those who feel threatened or insecure are the most resistant to admitting they were mistaken.

All this makes sense if you think of belief as an emotion akin to love.  Telling someone their belief is wrong is akin, then, to telling them their lover is ugly.

Which goes a long way to explaining why Fox News viewers regard Fox as the most credible possible source of news, even though it has been shown that those same viewers are the most likely to be factually mistaken about the great events of the nation.  Fox tells them what they want to hear, and doesn't contradict what they already believe.  Strangely enough, a credible news source will occasionally tell you something that is, well, news to you.

Which makes at least some people -- perhaps most -- uncomfortable.  And many will choose to not believe the media rather than change what they think they know.

Recognizing this was part of the genius of Richard Nixon.  He went to war against the press, and benefited greatly from doing so.  He also started the Republican party's Southern strategy, recognizing that the most threatened and insecure people would be Southern whites uncomfortable with the changes wrought by civil rights legislation.  The culture wars have been a mainstay of Republican campaigns since then.

The Republican party was not always the party of conservatism.  It started as an abolitionist party, and only after years of entrenched power did it become the conservative party.  Now that it is a conservative party, its appeal is primarily to people who are made uncomfortable by change.  This may explain the difference in backfire between liberals and conservatives.  Many conservatives are defined by the feeling that the form of society they prefer is threatened, so their reaction tends to be defensive.

 Because of the backfire problem, those who tell convenient lies to support what their followers wish to believe are rewarded rather than punished.  The question is, how to we overcome this problem?  Confirmation bias and backfire are so common, it seems sometimes as though our political discourse bears little resemblance to reality.  This can only end when those who mislead pay a price, and there's little sign of that on the horizon.