Facts Change Minds? Not So Fast

meowser-48.jpg posted by meowser
Via Firedoglake, I stumbled on a veeeery iiiinteresting study conducted at the University of Michigan that tested the hypothesis that people change their beliefs when they discover facts that contradict said beliefs. Turns out that in most cases, they don’t, and in fact, finding out the facts may actually make people cling to their mistaken beliefs more strongly. The Boston Globe puts it thusly:

In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false.

Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the study, gave study participants of different political stripes mock news stories to read containing provably false statements about WMDs being found in Iraq, tax cuts increasing government revenues, and the Bush administration having a total ban on stem cell research. Then Nyhan et al issued errata (corrections) to each story, stating the truth was the opposite of what the original stories had stated. The Globe again:

The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.

I don’t know about you, but this story knocked me on my bouncy keister. I don’t know why it should have been so surprising that “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts” should be such a pervasive mindset, but it has, to say the least, strong implications for fat acceptance/body liberation. I know I’ve thought, over and over again, that if diet and pharmaceutical and big-food industry propaganda didn’t rule most of the widely disseminated media, and we had a chance to get our message out, people would just see that discrimination against us was wrong. Well, maybe not. Maybe they’re just selling people what they want to buy.

But people have changed their minds about things over time. Maybe not everyone, or anything close to everyone, and maybe not deeply enough to overcome ingrained prejudice…but enough so that the average person’s intellectual stance on the issue in question (and hence, their vote with ballot or pocketbook) is different and continues to evolve. They’ve changed their minds about same-sex marriage, about wars, about women’s rights, about abolishing Jim Crow laws, about bunches of things, haven’t they? So what makes them change their minds, if not an improved set of data?

Maybe it’s images. In Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller’s compulsively readable triple biography of singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Carole King, Weller describes King’s second-husband-to-be, Charlie Larkey, as having been pictured on the cover of Esquire in 1967 as the embodiment of the “anti-draft movement” when he was a stunningly beautiful young adult:

Charlie’s long hair spilled out under a soldier’s helmet and grazed the shoulders of his peacoat, and his blue eyes gleamed in his sensual face, under the cover line: “You think war is hell? You should see what’s happening on campus.” Young women were supposed to pass newsstands, look at Charlie, and think, I don’t want this cute guy killed in Vietnam! Many of them did just that.

You’d hate to think that opposition to Vietnam invasion would be based solely on that, as if war would be just fine if only ugly people got killed. But isn’t it perception of physical beauty and affection that makes Westerners (including me) averse to eating dogs, cats, deer, and rabbits, as opposed to cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys? It isn’t well-reasoned arguments about nutrition or ecology, that’s for sure. So yes, I can bloody well buy that Charlie Larkey’s Hollywood-pretty mug engendered about a zillion more anti-war protests than the Pentagon Papers. Who will be our movement’s Charlie Larkey?

Or maybe it’s just that there are two kinds of people in the world. No, not people who divide everyone into two separate groups and people who don’t (snerk). I mean, people who are capable of understanding that they have been operating with bad or incomplete data, and people who aren’t. And there are a lot more of the latter than the former, I’m afraid. So why even bother correcting the many factual errors that are floating around about fat people?

Well, maybe because people’s worldviews can change drastically with a drastic change in their personal situations, and when that window does open, a better set of data can tip the balance. In my case, it took a gain of some serious poundage on medication before I was receptive to the information that weight wasn’t All About Teh Calories and that becoming less lazy and more disciplined wasn’t really the answer to my problems.

On the other hand, if my beliefs were really set in stone about weight, I might have considered myself “the exception that proves the rule”; maybe *I* gained my weight on meds, but the rest of those fatties were just lazy gluttons who needed to put down the Ben & Jerry’s. I didn’t go there. So there must be something innate about me that doesn’t just automatically assume I’m right about everything. I used to wonder if this was a function of low self-esteem, and that if I thought more of myself, I’d feel right about everything too. But is having to be right all the time really about too much self-esteem, or is it more a matter of too little?

I ask. I do not know.