Are your opinions solidly based in fact? Most everyone likes to think so. Yet plenty of research suggests our beliefs are driven more by psychological needs than objective assessments.
To cite just one example, if our desire for security requires us to perceive our society as fair and just, we’re likely to dismiss complaints about economic inequality or police brutality. Entertaining such ideas would mean challenging a comforting premise that fulfills a deep-seated need.
Ah, but what happens when the facts clearly contradict our assumptions? Do we rethink our opinions at that point?
Don’t be silly. New research suggests that, if options such as relying on biased sources of information prove insufficient, many of us simply rely more heavily on “unfalsifiable” assertions—ones that cannot be definitely proven or disproven.
While this practice “may contribute to polarization, intractability, and the marginalization of science in the public discourse,” write psychologists Justin Friesen of York University and Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay of Duke University, it could increasingly find favor “in a world where beliefs and ideas are becoming more easily testable by data.”
"When faced with threatening information, both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage reported that the political issues of same-sex marriage and parenting were less about 'facts' and more matters of moral opinion."
After all, they note, it allows people “to maintain their stated stance” regardless of emerging new information.
Writing in the in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers describe four experiments which demonstrate this dynamic in both the political and religious realms. One of them featured 174 participants recruited online—124 of whom supported same-sex marriage and 50 who opposed it.
They were randomly chosen to read one of two fake news articles. One said that children raised by same-sex couples have the same outcomes (as measured by such factors as intelligence, career success, and criminal behavior) as those raised by opposite-sex couples. The other said they fare more poorly than those raised in traditional families.
All participants then responded to two statements: “Whether same sex-marriage should be legal is a matter of fact or opinion,” and “Whether same-sex couples raise children as well as man-woman couples is a matter of fact or opinion.” They did so using a four-point scale, from “completely a matter of fact” to “completely a matter of opinion.”
The results: Proponents of same-sex marriage were more likely to frame it as “a matter of opinion” if they read that the children of such couples performed relatively poorly. In contrast, opponents were more likely to frame it in those terms if they read that the children of same-sex couples did relatively well.
“When faced with threatening information, both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage reported that the political issues of same-sex marriage and parenting were less about ‘facts’ and more matters of moral opinion,” the researchers write. This was apparently preferable to the other obvious option, which was “to revise one’s belief to be more in line with the new information.”
This tendency may be even more troubling than it sounds. “If including unfalsifiability is one defensive response to threat, popular belief systems may evolve to include more aspects of unfalsifiability over time,” the researchers speculate, “such as by marginalizing the relevance of science if they suspect that science does not support their beliefs.”
One can argue this has already started, particularly when it comes to climate change. Scientists can present data about the warming Earth, but the insistence that only God can change the climate effectively ends debate; it’s a matter of faith that is beyond challenge.
If we're truly to base our policies on factual information, a way must be found to get around this psychological defense mechanism. Of that I'm sure, and no data will convince me otherwise.