Why facts don’t change our minds – The psychology of our beliefs

‘Be kind first, be right later’

Writer: Chrysi Anastasaki
Editor: Ebani Dhawan
Artist: Patrick Marenda

We live in an era where we are immersed in information and opinion exchange. Research shows that we are internally rewarded when we can influence others with our ideas and engage in debate. Paradoxically, all this information often does little to change our minds. Therefore, it is more relevant than ever to examine the psychology of human belief. 

Belief formation and the brain

Belief is the noun which stands for the acceptance that something exists or it is true. On a biological level, belief formation is linked to the process of learning, thus, increasing or reinforcing neuronal connections in the brain which hold certain representations. Ultimately, these representations are expressed as behaviour. The brain, a ‘belief-engine’, invests itself in certain repetitive patterns in everyday life and assigns meaning to them by ignoring anything to the contrary. Although facts and beliefs can be linked (e.g. the sun rises every morning, so why would this change tomorrow?), they can also be detached from each other (e.g.  climate change denial). 

Emotion, reason, fear and optimism; why we stick to our beliefs 

While certain beliefs remain indestructible, others can easily be manipulated. Dr Jonas Kaplan ran a study in 2016 where people were shown a variety of arguments that contradicted their political and non-political views. It turned out that it was easier to change people’s minds about facts such as the invention of the light bulb by Thomas Edison, than other more personal beliefs. Apparently, the higher emotional value a belief holds, the more it is ‘safeguarded’ by our mental system. Perceptual shifts are required for a change of opinion but all too often these shifts put our emotional well-being at stake; this is why people cling to their beliefs. 

Another viewpoint examines the psychology of belief in relation to the evolution of human reason. Generally, people endorse beliefs because they ‘make sense’ to them. However, it may be that reason did not evolve to facilitate what we can imagine ‒ solving the unfamiliar or abstract problems. Rather, humans might have developed logic to learn to belong in the collective social life. Therefore, it might be that beliefs are serving the purpose of social survival no matter how little they have been verified by evidence. If a political belief helps an individual to secure social status, a job or a romantic relationship, chances are that it won’t change overnight ‒ even if it is unreasonable.

In his book The Idiot Brain, Dr Dean Burnett describes the human tendency to stubbornly cling to beliefs as ‘anti-intellectualism’. He explained that this persistence “could be the manifestation of the brain’s self preserving bias and tendency to fear things”. In addition, people who tend to doggedly embrace false ideas often also lack the flexibility to recognise that they might be misinformed. “The brain is egocentric and eliminates anything that will lead to the bad perception of self”, Dr Burnett remarks. 

In addition, researcher Dr Tali Sharot studies the optimism bias, a cognitive illusion that keeps people blissfully unaware of anything that can disturb their emotional survival. Just think about how many people get married thinking that they will never divorce, when the divorce rate in the UK exceeds fourty percent.

What are we really interested in? 

After all, people are not solely driven by facts. And if this is quite unfathomable, consider that science denialism is a social phenomenon, the most recent example being COVID-19 deniers. Similarly, some people believe that the earth is flat while others are sceptical about the climate crisis. 

So what influences our belief system? Dr Sharot suggests that individuals are motivated by fears, hopes, desires or prior beliefs rather than by facts alone. Rapid data acquisition has saturated our sensitivity and responsiveness towards verified information. All that remains important is how information is presented; positive reinforcement and personal incentives are crucial if we really decide to endorse a belief. Negative correlations or even the neutral presentation of hard facts are not always powerful enough to override well-established principles. For example, studies have shown that people are more likely to exercise when they are informed about the advantages of physical activity (e.g. endorphins release) rather than when they are warned about health risks (e.g. obesity). 

Can we ever really change? 

Luckily, maintaining a conscious awareness that the brain can be ‘fearful’ and that we are all still learning can create room for change. For now, this topic remains rapidly evolving and hotly debated. Nonetheless, research has come a long way in trying to understand how we form beliefs, why we struggle to change them and what we can do about it. Studying our own beliefs is indeed a fascinating but all too often nebulous and confusing task ‒ and it is still in progress. Just when we all thought our beliefs were based on facts, didn’t we? 

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