Why do people cling to beliefs when threatened by facts?

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    According to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, unfalsifiability is an important component of both religious and political beliefs. It allows people to hold their beliefs with more conviction, but it also allows them to become more polarized in those beliefs.


    We also currently know only a little about how and why people continue to hold a belief in the face of contradictory evidence. Sometimes people argue on the basis of fact, questioning the quality of the evidence against their position, for example.


    But it seems that people can also resort to emphasizing unfalsifiable reasons for holding a belief.


    they conducted another study on political beliefs. They asked 179 participants about their level of support for President Barack Obama, and then asked them to rate Obama’s performance on five issues: the health of American people, the happiness of American people, foreign policy, job creation, and the housing market. One group was told that the issues of job creation and housing could be objectively determined by evidence, while the other group was never told that Obama’s performance could be assessed with data.

    The results showed that unfalsifiability led to polarization of beliefs. Opponents rated Obama’s performance more negatively than supporters, but the difference was larger in those who were never told about the data. This held true across all five issues, even though only two had been earmarked as falsifiable.


    This is a very interesting study. I have given this matter a lot of thought. Plausible explanations abound, but little is really understood. I am encouraged that we are looking into this, because our national politics, even our perception of the just and true really is fragmented.

    And that is doing all of us no good at all.

    Good read again from Ars.


    They note an offensive function inherent in the unfalsifiable. Essentially, this can be summed up with the playful, “God told me he hates socialism”


    They also note the results showed that unfalsifiability led to polarization of beliefs. (!!!)

    Where there is the threat of data, there is also the threat of being caught out, which reduces the polarization incentive somewhat. This is not well understood yet. (And it should be)

    Where it’s falsifiable, they could be shown to be fools, and a worthy opponent, well armed with data, could forge common ground, assuming they are heard.

    Where it’s not, game on! Who ever yells the loudest is likely going to win the day.

    Interesting, isn’t it?

    Suggests to me people want to be right, but they don’t really want to be fools more. And that also sort of points to the dodge list where we do ANYTHING we can to slip out from under that data when we really want our belief, position, policy vision to be the right one, or true, or just the dominant one.

    I notice I personally have been calling for “fact based, data driven” policy. I started doing that after arriving at a complete loss as to how to proceed with any kind of effective advocacy, and often communication overall.

    “The data does not support your policy advocacy” kind of thing. It just hit me as an option to try, so I did.

    Maybe this suggests a bit of why. Don’t know, but I do think it’s really interesting!

    And they noted a defensive mode which is seen when science is framed in a way that may threaten religious beliefs. The playful, “Because Jesus” can be seen here.

    In both the offensive and defensive modes, people took advantage of and exploited the lack of falsifiable information to a greater degree than when they were made aware that falsifiable, as in peer reviewed, scientific information backed or was associated with the statements.

    Now, put it together and check this one out!

    With this in mind, they conducted a final experiment, again turning to politics. This time, they explored 174 people’s stance on same-sex marriage. All participants read a passage comparing the success of children raised by same-sex and opposite-sex parents. One version of the passage stated that both groups turned out equally well, while the other version stated that children of opposite-sex parents have better outcomes. Participants then rated whether the legality of same-sex marriage and the outcomes for children of same-sex parents are entirely matters of opinion, or entirely matters of fact.

    As the researchers predicted, people who supported same-sex marriage, and read the “worse outcomes” passage contradicting their position, answered that these questions were matters purely of opinion. People who were against same-sex marriage and read the “same outcomes” passage also emphasized opinion. Meanwhile, people who had read a passage confirming their viewpoint emphasized fact.

    This means that people with both viewpoints retreated to unfalsifiable ideas when their position was threatened by facts.

    (Emphasis mine)



    BTW, the discussion is notable. There are more downvoted to hidden status comments in that one than I have ever seen!

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