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Threaten My Group, and I’ll Belittle Your Science

New research from Germany helps explain why people attempt to discredit scientific findings in online comments.
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(Photo: Pavel Ignatov/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Pavel Ignatov/Shutterstock)

The newly energized debate about vaccines is a reminder that, when it comes to certain controversies, significant segments of the public refuse to believe the scientific consensus. Why so many people disregard clear and confirmed findings on issues ranging from the spread of measles to the dangers of climate change is a vexing question with alarming implications for the public welfare.

Newly published research provides at least a partial answer. It finds scientific findings that challenge the assumptions of a group you strongly identify with motivate people to derogate the research in online comments.

When informal membership in a group—say, the anti-vaccine movement, or those opposed to genetically modified foods—informs your sense of self, and/or provides a feeling of pride and belonging, a perceived attack on its basic beliefs is grounds for a counterattack. Today, that often means writing nasty, dismissive comments online.

In the journal PLoS One, a research team led by Peter Nauroth of Philipps-University Marburg in Germany examines this dynamic by focusing on video-game enthusiasts and their reactions to research suggesting playing violent games leads to violent behavior. Although there are dissenting opinions, the overwhelming majority of studies on this subject affirm that link.

“A social identity threat triggers a need for affirmation (of the group's values),” particularly for people who identify strongly with the group. “Posting a negative comment appeases the need for affirmation.”

While conceding that there are a number of reasons why gamers would choose to angrily argue with the science rather than seriously consider its implications, the researchers focus on one particularly interesting psychological framework: Social identity theory.

This school of thought contends that group membership (be it political, religious, or something as innocuous as being a fan of a particular sports team) is a significant source of our self-esteem. It follows logically that members have an interest in boosting the group’s status (and degrading the status of competing groups), since its prominence, or lack thereof, rubs off on ourselves.

To discover if this well-established dynamic is tied to anti-science diatribes, Nauroth and his colleagues conducted three studies. The central one featured 655 participants, all of whom had played at least one video game during the preceding year.

“Participants were told that a new blog about recent research findings was going to be launched soon, and that the first topic to be discussed would be violent video games,” the researchers explain. They were then asked to read short summaries of two such studies and rate each by either “liking” or “disliking” it. In addition, they were invited to comment on one or both.

One of the studies described empirical evidence that playing violent video games “has detrimental effects.” The other refuted that proposition.

The extent to which each participant identified with the gaming community was measured by their reactions to six statements, along the lines of “I feel solidarity with the group of gamers” and “Being a gamer is an important part of how I see myself.”

“When confronted with research findings that corroborate the violent-games-effect hypothesis, strongly identified gamers reacted with more ‘dislikes’ and negative comments towards the respective research” compared to those whose sense of self was less dependent on the gaming community, Nauroth and his colleagues found.

What’s more, these “strong identifiers,” in their comments, “particularly criticized the methodology of the confirmatory study." Their aim was to throw into question the research’s credibility, which was a way of upholding the values of their group.

“A social identity threat triggers a need for affirmation (of the group's values),” particularly for people who identify strongly with the group, the researchers conclude. “Posting a negative comment appeases the need for affirmation.”

From this perspective, the actual validity of findings is of little to no interest to a lot of people. While that’s a depressing finding, the researchers found providing participants with “collective affirmation” negated this dynamic.

Specifically, when they were told that people who regularly play video games tend to perform at above-average levels on the aforementioned test, participants who strongly identified as gamers were no longer more likely to try to discredit findings they disagreed with. The affirmation that their group is superior apparently provided a boost in self-esteem, and decreased their need to derogate those who challenge the group’s norms.

Perhaps this discovery can provide an opening for educators and policymakers as they attempt to get around this frustrating psychological block. If scientific findings are to be accepted and acted upon, they have to somehow be presented in a way that does not trigger a defensive reaction. 

We remain, in many ways, a tribal species, and if you challenge my “tribe,” don’t be surprised if the response is a metaphorical poke in the eye.