"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Why We Are Unlikely To Change Our Minds

I grew up in a family, educational, and social environment in which debate was encouraged and challenging received wisdom was thought healthy.  I was taught never to make up my mind until all the facts were in, to be sure that the facts were actually facts and not some second or third-hand report of events, and to dismiss soft claims (“I can’t remember where I read it, but I think it was the New York Times”). Polemics were always encouraged.  I never minded it if one of my children defended an issue that was not entirely consistent with one previously held.  They were pushing the logical envelope, trying out the other side to see how it felt, fitting it out with new clothes to see if it looked any better than the old. 

Some have said that because of this liberal upbringing, rigorously debating both sides of an argument, and coming to purely logical conclusions missed the point.  Everyone had to have some religious, philosophical, or social anchor around which arguments were constructed.  If not, then ideas, arguments, and concepts would simply whirl around and eventually get sifted, but with no particular purpose. Eighteenth Century man to the end, I preferred to pursue the truth.

It has been hard for me to accept people whose minds are always made up.  I am a harsh critic of my friends who have never left the safe confines of the Sixties.  Nothing has changed for them in fifty years, even though the world little resembles the one of their mustachioed youth.  It is really hard to dismiss Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes entirely, and to cling only to the iconic images of Jimmy Carter’s values-driven foreign policy, LBJ’s War on Poverty, and Bill Clinton’s ‘Looking Like America” diversity.  But they do. 

I have recently travelled and lived in one of the most conservative states in the Union – conservative in religious views, social issues, and politics.  I knew that I would hear views very different from my own; but I was surprised by the vehemence with they were held.  Not only had my conservative friends – like my liberal ones from back home – not changed in fifty years, they had developed hardened and aggressive stances.  It wasn’t enough to disagree with Obama, they hated him.   Although I was used to political tenacity and fidelity, I was not prepared for such vehemence and vitriol.

An article in the New York Times (9.18.12) by Cass Sunstein explains the phenomenon of hardened opinion.  Why, he asks, when presented with reasonable opposing positions, people not only reject them, but use them to harden their own opinions?

IT is well known that when like-minded people get together, they tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. The same kind of echo-chamber effect can happen as people get news from various media. Liberals viewing MSNBC or reading left-of-center blogs may well end up embracing liberal talking points even more firmly; conservative fans of Fox News may well react in similar fashion on the right.

The result can be a situation in which beliefs do not merely harden but migrate toward the extreme ends of the political spectrum. As current events in the Middle East demonstrate, discussions among like-minded people can ultimately produce violence.

How does this happen?

The answer is called “biased assimilation,” which means that people assimilate new information in a selective fashion. When people get information that supports what they initially thought, they give it considerable weight. When they get information that undermines their initial beliefs, they tend to dismiss it.

This natural human tendency explains why it’s so hard to dislodge false rumors and factual errors. Corrections can even be self-defeating, leading people to stronger commitment to their erroneous beliefs.

This has happened to me over and over again in discussions with friends from the Left and the Right.  I would present a well-researched and logical argument about a particular issue, and rather than enter what I thought would be a rational debate on the merits of the case with one side modifying an original position, I became involved in a contentious argument.  My sources were challenged.  I had been infected by the radical Left (or Tea Party Right).  I had lost my bearings living in the South or equally had lived in the North far, far too long.

What I found again and again was that my friends were reading only information that confirmed their opinions.  The only read MoveOn.org or watched Fox News, or worse, plumbed the depths of twisted conspiracy theories that raised ugly racist, anti-capitalist, anti-Semitic, or anti-immigrant sentiments.  It made no difference whether or not I countered the arguments reasonably.  One recent exchange with a liberal friend is illustrative.  He posted an article on FB which concluded that the Obama stimulus efforts and the QE actions of the Fed were all good.  I replied with an article– by an equally respected source – that not only did these interventions not have the intended consequences, they resulted in very negative unintended consequences.  As Sunstein predicted, not only did my friend dismiss my argument, he hardened his.

The only factor that social researchers have found that makes people listen to both sides is the credibility of the source. 

If civil rights leaders oppose affirmative action, or if well-known climate change skeptics say that they were wrong, people are more likely to change their views.

This, of course, is unlikely to happen.  It is hard to reject not only an argument but the faithful constituents who have put you in office.  Perhaps more importantly, in our very fragmented, rapidly changing, and unpredictable world, it is not surprising that we define ourselves with immutable, aggressive positions.  “I am against abortion” is much more affirming and identifying than the more wishy-washy “I don’t like the idea of abortion, but the rights of women, blah blah”; or “Wait until the data are all in”.

I still love to argue ideas, and I have a few friends with whom I have a mutually respectful relationship despite our political differences.  I think of our heated discussions as ways to refine or reject my premises, and I suspect my friends are only trying to change them; but we both leave the table satisfied.

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