False Beliefs

The persistence of beliefs in the face of contrary evidence has always puzzled me. It has also annoyed me. “Why don’t facts change our minds?” as Elizabeth Kolbert puts it in an article in The New Yorker (2/27/17).

She begins by citing a number of well-known studies that use the debriefing paradigm to present the facts. For example, subjects are first asked to judge pairs of suicide notes. Then they are asked to distinguish the genuine from the fake ones.

After they had made their judgments, some of the subjects were told they were experts at this task, while others were told they weren’t very good. However, there really wasn’t any difference between the subjects, as what they were told had no basis in fact.

In the next phase of the study, the debriefing procedure, they were told they had been deceived, that they had zero grounds for believing they were any good or poor in judging suicide notes.

In spite of the fact the subjects were informed about the deception, they continued to believe what they had been told. Those told they were good judges of suicide notes continued to believe they were good; those told they were poor continued to believe they were poor. Again, both were equally unfounded.

The researchers concluded beliefs are remarkably persistent in the face of contrary evidence. As a rule, individuals fail to revise their beliefs even after they have been refuted. If anything, they become more polarized, growing further apart as they hold to their beliefs more strongly.

While hundreds of subsequent studies have confirmed these findings, a straightforward explanation remains elusive. Kolbert asks, “How did we come to be this way?” In trying to answer this question, she reviews three recent books that have more or less come to the same conclusion.

The argument runs like this: The biggest advantage humans have over other species is not our ability to reason, but rather the ability to cooperate. “Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data rather it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborate groups.”

For example, say you believe the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a “disaster.” Even though your belief is baseless, if a good friend of yours agrees with you, even though her belief is also baseless, it will nevertheless strengthen your belief. And if another friend agrees with both of you, that will even further increase confidence in your view. And, so it goes.

The fact that false beliefs persist may have had some original survival value, but that doesn’t necessarily account for their persistence in the contemporary world. I know of many individuals who disagree about Obamacare or, if you will, our current president, but who nevertheless remain on the best of terms.

While we may be extremely sociable and belong to several collaborative groups, not everyone with these groups agree on a variety of issues. And yet the group can function quite successfully and the friendships among its members remain intact.