We humans have a stubborn tendency to focus on information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. The 21st-century media facilitates this presumptuous proclivity: It’s easy to avoid discomforting contradictory claims when there are websites and cable news networks tailored to fit your particular prejudice.
Newly published research points to another factor that feeds this ingrained confirmation bias: Our “Just do it!” culture. In both overt and subtle ways, Americans are constantly being encouraged to take action, and exposure to such messages makes us more liable to ignore dissenting ideas.
“The growing need for activity in the United States may contribute to a loss of objectivity in the way citizens gather information,” University of Alabama psychologist William Hart and University of Illinois psychologist Dolores Albarracin write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. They found that when people’s minds are attuned to the idea of action, their opinions tend to harden, making them less likely to seek out opposing viewpoints.
The researchers found evidence for this thesis in three experiments. In one, 72 undergraduates were asked to consider the question of whether hate speech should be banned from college campuses. They read about a specific case and then expressed their preliminary position, knowing they would have the opportunity to read more information on the subject.
The students were then instructed to complete a simple word test during what they were told was a “brief break” from their experiment. All were presented 12 words with missing letters; they were asked to fill in the letters and complete the word.
For half the students, eight of the words were action-oriented, including “motivation,” “doing” and “active.” For the other half, eight connoted inaction, including “still,” “pause” and “calm.”
Participants were then asked how strongly they held their beliefs on the hate speech issue. Afterward, they were given a chance to consider new, relevant information, in the form of 12 thesis statements that either supported or opposed their viewpoint.
The researchers found the participants with action concepts on their minds held firmer beliefs and were more likely than the others to choose statements that were consistent with their own opinions. Those who completed the words connoting passivity were also prone to this bias but to a significantly lesser degree.
A follow-up experiment again produced this effect. But it also found this increased level of confirmation bias disappeared when the students wrote a short statement about the value they cherish most highly. This self-affirming action “created a fair, non-defensive processing of new information,” the researchers write.
While it’s encouraging to find this effect can be negated, few of us consciously affirm our values on a regular basis. But in our advertising-saturated, contemplation-phobic culture, we do get bombarded with advice to take action.
“Over the last few decades, verb phrases that denote general action such as ‘get active,’ ‘get moving,’ ‘do something’ and ‘make something’ have been used more frequently in books published in the U.S.,” Hart and Albarracin write. "As action cues have become more common, technological advancements in media dissemination have also given citizens greater access to news and facts.
“Unfortunately,” they add, “our research shows that priming general action concepts can directly contribute to more defensiveness, and the loss of objectivity” in our choice of information sources.
Depending on the circumstances, “Just do it” can be great advice. But this study suggests the admonition comes with a decidedly disturbing subtext: “Just keep your mind closed.”