As a follow up to my post on truth seeking, I want to offer some thoughts connecting my post to an article in the New Yorker recently. The New Yorker article details the work of Brendan Nyhan who has studied the effect of media campaigns on the perception of political issues and policies. He has found that political beliefs — and, indeed, deeply-held beliefs of any kind — are almost impossible to change via marketing, discussion, logic or even broadly accepted facts!
To me this seems obviously related to our evolutionary bias for tribalism, which specifically helps us define ourselves as members of a group for protection. Of necessity, this bias also results in a desire to create “us” and “them” identifiers, which we use to maintain the integrity of the “tribe.” This is also the basis for a whole lot of nasty human tendencies: racism, sexism, religious tensions, extreme nationalism, etc. So, this bias is/was evolutionarily beneficial, but is highly problematic in a modern world.
Groups of all sorts are defined by their set of beliefs, from political parties to religions to social clubs to nations to families. Members of those groups often use shared beliefs to define their membership in those groups. So, as we are biologically biased to preserve our membership in groups, it makes sense that beliefs that tie us to those groups would be difficult to let go of. This is what Nyhan found in his research, and what I indicated was challenging in my previous post.
In discussing Nyhan’s findings with a friend, it reminded me of something I learned from my mother, who has a master’s degree in educational psychology, which was that people don’t really change as a general rule, but there are few things that can prompt substantial change in an individual:
- A near-death experience
- A life-threatening illness
- Cognative restructring, often achieved through psychological counseling
- A dramatic change of heart, often associated with a religious conversion
Perhaps this means that next time you run into someone with whom you have a deep fundamental disagreement, rather than trying to convince them that you’re right, you either need to guide them through therapy on the subject or convert them to your belief. Or you could just agree to disagree.