This Is Why We Stick To False Beliefs, According To New Study

Chemtrails aren't real, but plenty strongly believe in their existence. Why is that? FotoHelin/Shutterstock

Why do people cling on to beliefs, even when they’re shown incontrovertible proof that said beliefs are at least in part, or perhaps entirely, erroneous? This is a complex question that has no easy answers, but psychologists are giving it a shot.

A team from the Universities of Rochester and California, Berkeley have their own theory: people’s beliefs are more likely to be hardened by the feedback they get from others, rather than by anything purely logical or scientific.

If true, this has important implications. It suggests, for example, that climate change deniers aren’t convinced at all by hard data. Instead, assuming everything else is equal, they are influenced by how others react to their opinion.

For this Open Mind study, the researchers recruited 500 adults via the online Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing program. They then asked them to look through a collection of shapes of various hues onscreen and pick out which of them could be defined as a “Daxxy.”

Such a thing doesn’t exist, and no parameters were divulged, so it didn’t really matter what the participants responded. Nevertheless, the researchers gave them feedback as to whether they were “correct” or not after each choice. The participants also had to explain how confident they felt after each choice was made.

No matter where it happened during the sequence of 24 images, those that “correctly” identified a Daxxy a few times in a row reported being increasingly confident of their future choices. This meant that being told by someone they were doing well – regardless of the fact such feedback was meaningless – boosted certainty.

The implication here is that feedback and a self-assessment of their own behavior is a key (but not sole) factor in influencing the certainty of people’s beliefs. It’s easy to see why this is problematic.

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