Posted by: soniahs | April 19, 2011

The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science

An interesting article posted yesterday at Mother Jones looks at the psychological research behind why we often believe information that agrees with our previously held beliefs, and reject information that challenges those beliefs. The article, by Chris Mooney, builds on the psychological theory of “motivated reasoning:”

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

What’s interesting (and disturbing) is that, for scientific issues that are deeply tied to our sense of identity, education based on evidence actually often makes us less likely to believe the evidence:

…one insidious aspect of motivated reasoning is that political sophisticates are prone to be more biased than those who know less about the issues. “People who have a dislike of some policy—for example, abortion—if they’re unsophisticated they can just reject it out of hand,” says Lodge. “But if they’re sophisticated, they can go one step further and start coming up with counterarguments.” These individuals are just as emotionally driven and biased as the rest of us, but they’re able to generate more and better reasons to explain why they’re right—and so their minds become harder to change.

While the article focuses on science, there are political and ethical implications of this article as well. It’s a good introduction to this active area of research, with timely examples. Check it out!

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