Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds

Especially in today’s world, our televisions and Facebook and Twitter feeds seem to be flooded with constantly conflicting news stories, a lot of it fake news and information coming from largely biased news stations. It can be hard to discern what is real and what is “alternative facts.” And even in my daily life, it can be frustrating to have conversations with people who have extremely differing views on the same topic (right now, that is mostly focused on politics, unfortunately). That person has heard one thing and is so positive that what they heard is true while you have heard the polar opposite and you are 100% positive that you are correct. And neither person budges.

While it may seem like this only started with this past year’s elections, this is not a new phenomenon and doesn’t only concern politics. This article, published recently in The New Yorker, was an enlightening look at the idea of confirmation bias and just why facts do not always change our minds. The author describes several studies performed way back in the 70s (the Dark Ages practically) which demonstrated that even when people are given physical proof that their beliefs about something were false, they were still apt to believe it.

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When this becomes a problem is when we as humans can’t adapt to the changing world in terms of our inability to see when something is false. The new environment of fake news and fake studies, Twitter, and Fox News has failed us; according to the article, “this is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.” And unfortunately, strong feelings about something doesn’t always come from knowledge. We hear a sound bite on the news and believe that we know everything about that subject and therefore form a strong and unbinding opinion. But when we are shown evidence to the contrary, our bias kicks in and we refute said evidence. I see this ALL. THE. TIME.

This is where that bias becomes dangerous, in today’s era of constant information. Especially when it comes to public policy and even who our president is. And it’s why Republicans tend to watch Fox News and Democrats listen to NPR and read The New York Times (although I tend to think reading is a much more beneficial way to increase your knowledge on topics); we want to hear the things we think we will agree with. It only serves to strengthen our opinion.

To this point, the author makes a very good point. That journalists and reporters have a responsibility to spend more time educating their audience on the actual implications of public policy and less time pontificating with no knowledge. If this were the case, “we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views.”

This is a fascinating yet somewhat terrifying prospect when you think of how it has affected our lives. As the author writes, “these days, it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment.” Yes, indeed it does.

If you read the article, let me know what you think. Do you also find this fascinating and extremely frustrating?

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(Yes/No photo via interaction-design.org; stick figure photo via Pinterest)

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