Do you ever wonder how people can believe something so different than what you believe? Especially when you are sure that all the facts are on your side – how can people believe the opposite?
Part of the answer lies in how we humans view the world. According to social psychologist Thomas Gilovich, we view what we are pre-disposed to believe differently than those things we are biased against believing. Specifically, Gilovich explains:
For desired conclusions, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe this?”, but for unpalatable conclusions, we ask, “Must I believe this?”― Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life
Here’s how this works. When we want to believe something we ask “can I believe this?” We can pretty easily find support for whatever we want to believe (especially with all the crazy stuff in the internet). Even if we only find one questionable piece of supporting evidence we now have justification for believing what we want.
On the other hand, when we don’t want to believe something we ask “must I believe this?” We then look for contradictory evidence. As summarized by Jonathan Haidt in his outstanding book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion: “If we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it . . . you only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.”
Here’s an example. Assume that Roy is predisposed to NOT believe that global warming is caused by humans. With respect to man-made global warming, Roy will be in the “must I believe this” camp. So, must he believe it? No. Even though there is scientific consensus that human activity is the primary cause of global warming, it is easy to find support that climate change isn’t caused by humans. Roy can easily find information to support his position that he mustn’t necessarily believe the scientific consensus. Same goes for fears of GMO foods and the anti-vaxxer movement; they can find support for their views not to believe the scientific consensus with a “must I believe this” mindset.
There is little in the world that is completely, undeniably true. And even when something is verifiably true, you can still dig up some argument that it’s not true. Case in point: some people believe the Earth is Flat and others believe it’s shaped like a donut.
Again from Jonathan Haidt:
The difference between a mind asking “Must I believe it?” versus “Can I believe it” is so profound that it even influences visual perception. Subjects who thought they’d get something good if a computer flashed up a letter rather than a number were likely to see the ambiguous figure [shown below] as the letter B, rather than as the number 13. If people can literally see what they want to see–given a bit of ambiguity–is it any wonder that scientific studies often fail to persuade the general public?
What can be done?
First and foremost, we should try to recognize our beliefs. What are our biases? When we approach an issue realize what question we asking and try to switch it. In other words, if its something you want to believe try to substitute “must I believe this?” and if its something you are against, try to substitute “can I believe this?”
This is really, really hard! I am horrible at this and I really try.
“I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people do who are supporting it. I think only when I reach that stage am I qualified to speak.”