A few weeks ago, I was in a conversation with someone who quoted Ben Shapiro saying, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” The tension between facts and feelings is a topic that’s been coming up quite a bit in discussions recently for me, as I’ve talked with people who are frustrated by how many people today ignore scientific research related to several issues that I don’t want to get into right now. My reason for bringing this up is that listening to these comments prompted a related thought.
Feelings don’t care about your facts.
You can have all the research in the world to back you up but when feelings are involved people (as a whole) just don’t care. You can’t root out deeply help opinions by inundating people with logical reasoning. It’s like if you’ve ever spilled cooking oil on your clothes and then tried to scrub it out with water. The facts just run right off because they doesn’t mesh with what we already hold true.
“As a result of the well-documented confirmation bias, we tend to undervalue evidence that contradicts our beliefs and overvalue evidence that confirms them. We filter out inconvenient truths and arguments on the opposing side. As a result, our opinions solidify, and it becomes increasingly harder to disrupt established patterns of thinking.” — “Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds. Here’s What Does” by Ozan Varol
At its most simple, “Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true.” Once we get an idea in our heads, we tend to hold on tight to information that supports it and ignore or reject anything that would threaten this idea. These tightly-held ideas can be anything from a political view, to an understanding of how the world works, to a belief about yourself (“What Is Confirmation Bias?” by Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.).
It’s Not Just “Them”
We tend to think that we’re right and other people who disagree with us are wrong. We can easily see confirmation bias at work in others, and many of us are more than happy to point that problem out and offer correction.
This isn’t just a problem with other people, though. It’s a problem with you and me too. We all have confirmation bias about the things we believe. We all filter-out opposing information and gravitate toward the things that agree with us. No matter how rational and fact based we think we are, we’re also influenced by confirmation bias. If we want to understand why it’s so hard to change people’s minds we need to recognize what’s happening in ourselves as well as in them.
For example, you may need to let go of your belief that facts can actually change people’s minds if you want to get anywhere when you’re having a dialogue with them. And, as we talked about in my post “Taking Responsibility for Our Own Feelings and Learning to Talk about Complicated Issues in Today’s Society,” you should also be open to the idea that your own beliefs might not all be 100% correct. Maybe you’ll be the one who learns something in this conversation. Maybe the topic is so complex that there isn’t one simple answer. Or maybe you didn’t have all the facts originally and it’s time to adjust your ideas to fit some new information.
Changing Our Minds Doesn’t Feel Safe
Have you ever changed one of your beliefs, particularly one that you used to share with people around you? What happened when you told the others in your group that you no longer agreed with them?
If even the thought of doing something like that is giving you anxiety, congratulations. You’re human. We’re all scared of this. Shared opinions are one of the things that holds social groups together, and social groups are a vital part of most humans’ lives. Risk perception expert David Ropeik writes, “We are social animals instinctively reliant on our tribe for safety and protection. … Any disloyalty literally feels dangerous, like the tribe will kick you out” (quoted in “Why Is It So Hard to Change People’s Minds?” by Elizabeth Svoboda). None of us want to loose our tribes.
There’s a good reason we fear this. When we hear about people who alter their opinions in light of new information, we also typically see their groups turn against them. Take the story of award-winning documentary filmmaker Cassie Jaye as an example. She was a feminist who set out to expose “the dark underbelly of the men’s rights movement.” She did her job correctly, though, and really listened to the men she interviewed. Her TED talk is a beautiful example of someone recognizing her own confirmation bias and overcoming it.
But what happened when she suggested the men’s rights activists actually had something valuable to add to the conversation about gender issues? When she pointed out that paternity fraud, workplace deaths, suicide, child custody, false rape accusations, failure to launch, and lack of resources for male victims of domestic violence are human rights issues that either disproportionately or uniquely affect men? The media turned on her, targeting her with a smear campaign, and people who’d never seen the film protested it outside theaters saying it was harmful to women. Her tribe attacked her for changing her mind and bringing new voices to the discussion.
A Shift In Mindset
So if changing our minds feels dangerous and we have a built-in confirmation bias that resists new information, how do we get around that? Unless we just want to be slaves to whatever ideology our social groups hold or the ideas we’ve picked up through our lives, we all need ways to adapt to new information. We also need ways to talk with people who we believe are wrong about certain things.
Part of changing our minds involves letting go of ego. Why do you or I need to be right all the time? We are not Sith to deal only in absolutes. There’s actually a very good chance that I’m wrong about some things, and so are you. It’s a hard lesson to learn — one I’ve been working on for years and still struggle with sometimes. It’s an important lesson, though. We need to be open to constructive criticism if we want to grow. Also, if we want others to be open to us pointing out where they’re wrong, then we also must be prepared to accept we might be wrong in some cases as well.
This shift in mindset leads to a very important point. All those people who disagree with you are just as human as you are. The human level is where you need to connect if you want to make any progress in discussing controversial issues. They’re not the enemy. They’re a real person, and until you see them that way and make connecting with them one of your main goals, why should they care what you think?
Getting Around Fact-Resistance Feelings
It’s such a human temptation to intellectually punch people in the gut when you’re certain they’re wrong. Throw the facts at them! Facts don’t care about your feelings, they just are and if you don’t accept them you’re an idiot. It really shouldn’t surprise us, though, that this strategy doesn’t work. Would it work on you?
“The moment you belittle the mind for believing in something, you’ve lost the battle. At that point, the mind will dig in rather than give in. Once you’ve equated someone’s beliefs with idiocracy, changing that person’s mind will require nothing short of an admission that they are unintelligent. And that’s an admission that most minds aren’t willing to make.” — “Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds. Here’s What Does” by Ozan Varol
Instead of attacking people for their ideas, you need to give them a way out. Belittling someone makes them (understandably) defensive. Whether you’re trying to convince yourself or someone else to reevaluate their beliefs, you need to “hack” past the brain’s gut-reaction to protect previously held ideas.
“The key is to trick the mind by giving it an excuse. Convince your own mind (or your friend) that your prior decision or prior belief was the right one given what you knew, but now that the underlying facts have changed, so should the mind.” — Ozan Varol
Letting go of deeply held beliefs — especially if they’re entwined with your identify — isn’t easy for anyone to do. And you will meet with resistance from people who refuse to change no matter how perfectly you present your arguments. That’s on them, though. What you’re responsible for is your own ideas and opinions, and about how you treat others when sharing what you believe.
It is possible for us (and others) to reevaluate our opinions in light of new information if we present it to ourselves (and others) in the right way. We must remember that changing minds based on facts is not about attacking or looking down on someone for being wrong (at least it shouldn’t be). It’s about seeking truth together even when it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient. It’s about learning to see people on the other side of the argument as human beings who care just as much about their beliefs as you do about yours.