Thursday, February 17, 2011

I had closed my eyes

We’d like to believe that most of what we know is accurate and that if presented with facts to prove we’re wrong, we would sheepishly accept the truth and change our views accordingly.

A new body of research out of the University of Michigan suggests that’s not what happens, that we base our opinions on beliefs and when presented with contradictory facts, we adhere to our original belief even more strongly. The phenomenon is called backfire.

We even make up stuff - “confabulated” - to justify our convictions. Schultz cites an experiment carried out by psychologists in Michigan in the 1970s where a group of shoppers were asked to pick out their favourite from four varieties of pantyhose. In fact, the four were identical, but that didn't stop the shoppers from explaining their preferences in terms of non-existent differences in colour or texture.

Of course, refusing to confront the evidence in front of us can have much more serious consequences than being made to look a fool in front of a pile of tights. Kathryn Schultz quotes from the memoires of Nazi armaments minister Albert Speer:

“I did not query Himmler, I did not query Hitler. I did not investigate...for fear of discovering something which might have made me turn away from my course. I had closed my eyes.”

My favorite denial quote comes from the neighbour after the arrest last year of the Russian spies known as Richard and Cynthia Murphy of Montclair, New Jersey. Jessie Gugig told the New York Times she did not believe the couple could be Russian agents:

“They couldn't have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

Sources: bbc + npr + ft

No comments:

Post a Comment