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.

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17 Responses to “Facts Change Minds? Not So Fast”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    I have a close friend who talks about the down side of self-confidence, and particularly how we–in this culture, anyway–tend to idealize it and even idolize it.

    Self-confidence, by its nature is unrelated to the outside world, and therefore immune to fact. My friend points out, then, that self-confidence makes for a terrible scientist, scholar, or politician (George W. was famously self-confident, for instance). Those professions, and many others, require the ability to doubt your own beliefs. Hell, that ability is useful in life, as you say.

    So, I think it’s interesting that you look to your issues with self-esteem as a possible explanation. Maybe low self-esteem, or a period of it, can help a person form the ability to selectively self-doubt.

  2. Screaming Fat Girl Says:

    Having to be right all of the time is rooted in insecurity. People who are secure in their self-assessment in regards to their intellect, their value, and personal psychological development can tolerate having their views challenged and even empathize with the devil’s advocate position.

    People who are deeply insecure often put up a false front of security (generally manifested in arrogance, smugness, or other negative manifestations of their sense of superiority). Any challenge to their views undermines their limited confidence in themselves and lowers their already low estimation of themselves.

    It takes a solid ego structure and good self-esteem to be open to intellectual challenges. Few people have what it takes to accept and internalize the consequences of such challenges. Fewer people have the self-awareness to realize that they are not people of high esteem who are open-minded. Most people believe they are open-minded, even when they are not. They tend to assign intellectually disingenuous behavior and the inability to accept alternative viewpoints to their adversaries, but are just as incapable of inhabiting the opposition’s thought processes and arguments as their opposition.

    The fact that so many fat advocates feel it necessary to attack people who lose weight or diets is a clear indication that they cannot embrace the other side of the equation. In order to demonstrate true confidence in one’s argument, one must admit that there is merit in almost all sides of any argument, include those diametrically opposed to ones own.

  3. spoonfork38 Says:

    I’ve always thought that willfull ignorance is one of the most damaging and pervasive of mindsets. I still do.

    And, like you, I think there is a cure, but the treatment is long and tedious. But so worth it!

  4. meowser Says:

    Screaming Fat Girl, could you cite some examples of people being “attacked” specifically for dieting by fat advocates? I know of examples of people who have dieted who have said things like, “Nobody could be happy or healthy at my former size,” and yeah, that will come in for some static. As will a celebrity claiming to have done it for “health” instead of admitting having done it primarily for professional advantage. But that has more to do with what people say about their diets than about the dieting itself.

    Our message to would-be dieters is pretty simple: The odds in your favor are not good, and no matter how much pressure people put on you to slim down, it’s not going to change that fact. So no, we’re not going to give you our blessing, but we do understand the pressure.

  5. Twistie Says:

    There have been times in my life when I’ve gotten some fact corrected and I could literally feel my mental heels digging in, so this study doesn’t actually surprise me that much..

    I honestly don’t think it’s as much a matter of confidence or lack of confidence as one of fear. It’s scary to suddenly discover that everything you thought about something is wrong. If you allow it to be wrong, then does that mean you’ve never been right about anything? And the closer it gets to your core beliefs, the harder it is to accept that you might be mistaken.

    The thing is, the first bit of truth is the hardest. If you can get that through your (or someone else’s) head, it gets a little easier to get the second bit through. After all, the Seneca Falls Convention, generally considered to be the formal birthplace of the women’s rights movement in America, took place in 1848. The nineteenth amendment allowing women to vote was passed in 1920. By that time only one participant in the Seneca Falls convention was still alive, and she was too ill to take advantage of her new right to vote.

    Chances are we won’t see true FA embraced across our culture in our lives, but we are water dripping on stone. Eventually the stone wears away and the water gets through.

  6. buttercup Says:

    I think some people will change their minds based on evidence and some won’t. I’ve changed my mind several times on things due to what I found out-some people are more receptive than others. The general trend toward heel-digging is not surprising, but water on stone, as Twistie says. And be the water. If you can’t personally convince people, maybe you can get a wedge open into their mind and they’ll do some independent research.

  7. Karen Says:

    I also think that it makes a different who you hear things from. If my mom tells me she heard something on the evening news, I take it with a grain of salt. If the Washington Post reports something, I take it somewhat more seriously but check their sources. If it’s my best friend who I know shares much of my mindset, I almost always believe her. So I think word of mouth is a much more powerful medium than ones we traditionally think of as authoritative (new media, scientific journals).

    I think of this particularly in the context of queer rights. Homophobes are much more likely to change if someone they know and care about comes out. That connection with people can make all the difference. So I feel like it’s worth my time to keep thinking about talking about fat acceptance (and queer rights, and feminism, etc.), not necessarily as pontification, but to make that human connection with people.

  8. Miriam Heddy Says:

    I think the thing to remember is that we’re not necessarily talking about people having some sort of in-built fatphobia which we’re trying to change with a set of facts.

    The dominant culture is coming at all of us with a continual, non-stop barrage of fatphobic propaganda that’s designed to convince people to be fatphobic because it’s in the interests of those who promise to sell back our self-esteem, for a price.

    So we’re a subculture working to get people to question that dominant message. But the thing is, as Adrienne Rich said of compulsory heterosexuality, if it was “natural,” there’d be no need to work so hard to convince everybody it was natural.

    Change is possible. People were not always as fatphobic as they are now, and the culture wasn’t always so pro-diet. Things *do* change so things can change.

    Still, it’s hard work.

  9. sleepydumpling Says:

    I can only speak from my experience. When my self esteem was low, I was always so convinced that the view of the world I had then was how it was. Any attempts to change that caused me to either explode with rage at someone challenging my perceptions, or drove me into such a funk of denial that I could barely function.

    However, since I’ve been having my brain re-set by some very good therapy, and my self esteem and confidence are strong, I’m FAR more amenable to shifting my thoughts when presented with new evidence. That doesn’t mean that I can’t still be as pig-headed stubborn as I was before, it just means that I don’t feel so undermined when I get new information about an opinion that I held, and that given the time and space to digest that information, often find my perspective changing.

    But I always say – I wouldn’t have believed me back then if I could beam today me back to then!

  10. wriggles Says:

    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.

    We don’t help ourselves by sharing to many unexamined premises with the status quo. Our desire to fit in and not be “too radical” consistently undermines us in this way.

    I also think we underestimate others-yes even some of the haters- by behaving as if they couldn’t possibly consider a message that was more straight to the point and framed by us, rather than trying to fit into what has already erased us to be able to make it’s point.

  11. DanaLynn Says:

    I think it is interesting that some people have fond that when they have bouts of low self esteem that they are more willing to accept the fact that they are wrong, while others when in a low place lash out to protect their beliefs. I think both are true, people are different, so their reactions would be as well.

  12. Rosa Says:

    What Karen said is really important – my experience is that the vast majority of people don’t really learn things from newspapers or books, they learn them from word-of-mouth, and they judge both on how the “fact” fits into their worldview and on how they feel about the person saying it.

    So if you make them uncomfortable – say, by being fat, or by interrupting their habitual diet talk, or even just demonstrating that you’re not part of the diet culture (I had a coworker for a while who asked me the same questions every single day about what I was eating because she just couldn’t comprehend that I had NO IDEA the calorie content of my food.) they’re more likely to discount what you say right away.

  13. Mulberry Says:

    Truth can be such an elusive slippery eel. Besides, if you learn that something you previously believed is actually wrong, how do you know that what you’re being told now won’t itself be shown to be wrong someday? Perhaps a lot of truth is relative, rather than being absolute. If you believed, for example, that the earth is a sphere, you’d be wrong, but not quite as wrong as someone who believes it’s flat.

  14. Dori Says:

    Based purely on what is written in the op with regard to the content of the study,I think that the researchers did not necessarily control for enough variables to be able to generalize about people as a whole.

    Specifically, that while both groups were likely to refuse to change their minds when presented with facts, those who self identified as conservative (likely a very us centric definition of the term) were more likely to do so and to dig their heels in harder. in my experience, americans that define themselves as liberal are more open to being told their wrong if there is fact to back it up. Not completely open, but more than average.

    Unless the researchers controlled for already existing opinions and biases, then this study proves nothing more than that these researchers know how to bait people. I mean, come on, what are the chances that they found americans that had zero preconceived notions about wmds?

    I don’t think it tells us anything that we didn’t already know from personal experience trying to explain fat acceptance to others.

  15. Blimp Says:

    One’s professed opinions have serious social consequences! A prejudice acts as a filter for one’s relationships; we form relationships with people that are compatible with our prejudices.

    So, when we are presented with evidence that challenges our prejudice, we have to choose: is it worth sacrificing our relationships to let go of prejudice and embrace the truth? And, lest you think that painful or oppressive relationships are not worth keeping, is it worth enraging your enemy or your master, when to avoid his wrath and punishment, all you have to do is not say what he doesn’t want said? Whereas, if you say the taboo words, he will unleash a globalized media empire to compose evil fables about you that will convince all but the most brave souls to proclaim you are a villain, even if they privately don’t believe the hype!

    Yes, people whose opinions change in response to evidence are rare, like Socrates, and are regarded as closed-minded villains by most, because their opinions never change in response to pressure, or voluminous disinformation and encyclopedias of facts that are irrelevant, facts that do not constitute evidence, or best only inconclusive evidence, but which we are under pressure to proclaim to be 100% conclusive and convincing.

    The question raised by Meowser is as old as humanity: how to get the masses to behave like Socrates. My answer is: be like Socrates. Never claim to know what you don’t know. Continually investigate your own opinions, to determine whether they are truthful, or should be replaced. And if anyone puts pressure on you to cease your investigations (as will surely happen), tell them that it’s your patriotic duty to seek the truth.

  16. Layla Says:

    Though I will agree that it’s generally harder for someone of a lower self-esteem (hi there) to be able to accept something that’s the complete opposite of what they believe, I also tend to think there’s a difference between people’s willingness to believe something when it’s fact or opinion. I know for me I’m much more willing to believe something (though don’t always) if it actually is fact with valid sources backing it, and not just opinion.

    For example, if someone were to tell me, “I’m for abstinence only sex ed because pregnancies in unmarried women are up 20% from the 1960s” and cite a source, I’m willing to take a look at it, but I’ll often say “but then why not promote the teaching of proper contraceptive use and research for contraceptives as well? And by the way, by this study you cited, unmarried pregnancies were highest in the immediate years after a president started and promoted an abstinence only program”. I may not necessarily change my mind, but I’m willing to take a look. But if someone says, “women who don’t want to get pregnant just need to keep their legs together” well, I’m a lot less inclined to engage them in debate at all. There’s a difference, I think, between playing devil’s advocate and engaging in civil debate, and shouting down the other side and being a total jackass. Unfortunately, the internet is where a lot of the latter happens and I’ve quite lost my patience for it.

  17. Gina Says:

    I think self-esteem is crucial and playing the devil’s advocate will help you gain more.


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