Have you ever found yourself in an argument with someone who is unshakeable in his or her beliefs, regardless of firm evidence to the contrary?
The world is full of some unusual beliefs, amplified perhaps in recent times by popular phrases like “fake news”.
Holocaust deniers, flat earthers and 9/11 conspiracy theorists are just some of the people you may find yourself in a no-win argument with, so unflappable they are in their beliefs.
Now researchers at the University of California Berkeley have found why such people hold on to their beliefs despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
According to the researchers, it’s not hard evidence that cements a person’s sense of certainty in an issue, but rather feedback they get from other people. The developmental psychologists behind the study say that positive or negative reactions a person receives in response to expressing an opinion, undertaking a task or interacting is more likely to influence their beliefs that scientific data, logic or reasoning.
“I'm interested in the reasons people become certain, especially when they become certain about beliefs which are false. Learning about the reasons people become certain is important because we are constantly and automatically making judgements about what is true in everyday life. Discovering how those processes work is not only interesting in and of itself but could be useful for learning how to better communicate ideas with the public or teach students,” Louis Marti, a PhD student in psychology at the University of California Berkeley told Theravive.
The findings offer a new perspective of how people cope with information that challenges the way they view the world, as well as how some learning habits can actually limit a person intellectually. Marti explains that if a person thinks they know a lot about something, even when they don’t, they are less inclined to delve into that topic and learn more, thereby failing to realise just how little they know.
In order to test how belief can be shaped, the researches enlisted 500 adults to take part in a study that involved looking at different combinations of coloured shapes. During this process, the participants were asked to identify which os the shapes would be considered a “Daxxy” (a fictional object constructed by the researchers for the sake of the experiment). The participants were given no information about a Daxxy, and began to undertake blind guesses each time they saw a coloured shape. They then received feedback on whether they were correct. Following each guess, the participants were asked to report if they were or weren’t sure about their answer.
The researchers found that the participants largely based their level of certainty on whether they were able to correctly identify a Daxxy in the previous four or five guesses, rather than on the information they had gained throughout the entire exercise.
“We found that instead of using all available evidence to inform their certainty, people were primarily using recent feedback. This was surprising because people were using all available evidence to learn the meaning of an unknown word we presented them, but were primarily using a completely different method to inform their certainty. In other words, they were performing optimally when learning the word, but their certainty about whether or not they knew what the word meant was sub-optimal which led people astray,” Marti said.
In an ideal learning framework, a participant would base their certainty on what they had observed throughout the duration of the study, as well as on the recent feedback they had received.
Marti says that in terms of forming beliefs, paying close attention to only the most recent feedback on a topic rather than the knowledge you have accumulated over time is not the best way to get a good understanding of the truth.
However, this does explain why some people can so easily be won over by frauds. This might not always be harmful, but according to Marti in some cases could be dangerous.
“Many false beliefs are probably completely benign. If a child believes in Santa Claus, it's probably not going to cause harm. On the other hand, many false beliefs can cause enormous harm. If I believe modern medicine is harmful and I decide to take homeopathic pills… to cure my cancer, it's not going to end well,” Marti said.
False beliefs aren’t easy to escape and according to Marti are even present in global affairs.
“False beliefs play a major role in US politics because they unfortunately play a major role in everything. We can't all be experts in everything and so there are plenty of false beliefs swimming around in each of our brains. My strong suspicion is that Donald Trump holds as many false beliefs about policy as most other politicians, he simply doesn't possess the skills to hide them,” he said.
It may not be worth having an argument with a flat-earther, but Marti says it is important to constantly put ones own beliefs to the test to ensure they are true.
“Human certainty seems to primarily follow a quick and simple heuristic rather than rigorous analysis. Most of that is probably happening rapidly and subconsciously, so if we want to make sure our beliefs are true, we should try to consciously challenge them and attempt to falsify them, similar to what scientists do,” he said.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.