This week, joining more than 84 million viewers worldwide, I watched Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off for their first US presidential debate. My purported rationale for tuning in? To learn more about the candidates’ platforms. The truth? Like almost everyone else, I had made up my mind long before and really had no intention of changing it. Maybe that’s understandable: this election campaign began oh so long ago, and gobs of data are available to have formed an educated opinion by now. But there is a danger, whether in this election or in everyday life, when we make up our minds and stop the intake of new information about something simply because it doesn’t mesh with our beliefs and biases.
Why and how is it that peoples’ mindsets become so fixed? How is it that our beliefs remain stubbornly impervious to change? Here are a few insights from cognitive psychology…
1. Confirmation bias. As the saying goes, “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t already believed it.” The way people are approaching this election is the way humans approach much of life: searching for information and impressions that confirm what we already hold true. This “confirmation bias,” as it’s known in psychology, means we over focus on those aspects of a person or situation that reinforce our preexisting beliefs, and it means that we fail to take in new information that might otherwise expand or change our minds. If we already believe a candidate is untruthful, for example, we tend to ignore those times she or he speaks truthfully and hone in on the statements that distort the facts.
2. Cognitive Dissonance. We feel best when our ideas about ourselves and the world are aligned and consistent. When they clash, it triggers an uncomfortable state of “cognitive dissonance,” and we need to find a way out. We do some fancy footwork to get back to a place where our thoughts and behaviors are aligned. It goes something like this: “I care about the environment, but I just bought a car that is a gas guzzler… [dissonance] Well what difference does one car make anyway? Plus, there’s been way too much hype placed on car emissions in the environment, and I’m concerned about environmental issues that have real impact…” These mental gymnastics can apply to a multitude of topics, but it’s a problem when we ignore or rationalize real facts and data in the pursuit of that internal calm.
3. Backfire effect. When we are confronted with information that contradicts our beliefs – “inconvenient facts” as sociologist Max Weber labels them – we are likely to resist and dig in our heels. And ironically, the mere existence of contradictory facts can make people more sure of preexisting beliefs – or at least make them claim to be more sure. This cognitive bias can actually be seen on screen. Using fMRI technology, neuroscientists can actually observe that when we take in information confirming our beliefs, the brain areas associated with learning light up. But when we hear something that doesn’t conform to our beliefs, the parts of our brain associated with thought suppression and effortful thinking light up instead.
4. Fear. The world of emotions is messy. Yes, fears of all kinds – fear of losing control, fear of losing face, fear of uncertainty – all contribute to our resistance to change our minds. Change can make us feel that we have lost authority and autonomy; it can make us feel ashamed or embarrassed; the ambiguity or uncertainty can make us feel disoriented. We will protect ourselves from these terribly uncomfortable and painful states and resist.
5. Information Overload Paradox. Access to information has exploded and we can get the entire world on our “smart” phones. But there is simply too much information and we cannot process it all. It’s cognitively taxing to process the glut of data and opinions that we are bombarded with daily, so one strategy to corral the chaos is to curate the information we absorb. So we create filters and newsfeeds, and these inevitably reflect our biases. Reading the opinions of people who already agree with us is enormously gratifying but it also limits opportunities to grow or change our minds as well.
To be sure, it is essential that we develop thoughtful ideas and beliefs about the world and defend values near and dear to our hearts. We might just want to keep in mind that we will rarely argue an opponent into another point of view by presenting facts – no matter how convincing they are, and conversely, we need to coach ourselves to be openminded if we want to continue to grow and evolve in our understanding of each other and the world around us.