If you want something to be true there’s a good chance it isn’t…

We all have opinions. Oh, do we have a lot of opinions.

It’s worth observing that opinions come in 2 forms though:

1. Personal perspectives or beliefs. That movie sucks! That’s how we see it according to what we think makes a movie good or bad. Here we’re not talking about just the movie but also about what we like and enjoy.

2. Claims to truth. Breathing in smoke from a fire will help cure your cold!¬†Someone can believe this is true (I was actually told this once) but that’s not relevant. Either campfire smoke is good in fighting off a cold or it isn’t.

What’s really strange about the world today is that increasingly people have the second kind of opinion based on who they are. This is particularly true in the US where people are far more likely to deny climate change if they happen to vote Republican.

Republicans tend to favour personal liberty over government regulations. That’s their personal perspective.

But climate change is either happening or it isn’t. How you personally wish the country was governed doesn’t change that.

Blame your friends and family!

Psychologists call it social influence. It’s the process of how what we think and believe is deeply affected by our family, friends and the community around us.

On one level this is pretty obvious. It’s not as though the entire population of say, Pakistan, looked at the world religions and decided the Islam was the right one to follow. They just accepted it because that’s what everyone around them did.

It’s a bit harder to admit when it’s closer to home though.

Growing up in England, a country with a welfare system, it never occurred to me to worry what might happen to my parents when they get old.

But when I travelled to Iran and I was staying in a family home, my hosts at one point cleared their throats and with some embarrassment, asked me if it was actually true, that is they’d heard a rumour, but maybe they were wrong….but did we really put our parents in care home when they got old?

I said, well, yes, I mean, they can’t stay with us because, you know, they get a bit senile and annoying…

Until that point it had never occurred to me that it might seen as a heartless thing to do. I mean, no one else in England seemed to worry about it. But in Iran, where family connection is prized above all else, it was unthinkable.

But take something like genetically-modified foods. Most people won’t really understand the science behind it. I sure as hell don’t. But almost everyone has an opinion on it. And if you’re the kind of person who does yoga, likes to camp in nature, eats vegetarian food – you’re much more likely to be against GMO.

Because, in all likelihood, most people you know will be.

Our brains are also to blame as usual

xkcd.com

We like to think we make up our own minds about what is true or not. Science has shown us that our brains aren’t like some wise judge who weighs up the evidence and comes to a fair decision.

Our brains are more like judges in the pay of the mafia.

The mafia in this case are deeply-ingrained habits the brain has: patterns of thinking that stop us from seeing how things really are.

One of these is a pretty simple bias that psychologists call motivated reasoning. Essentially it’s where we see things in a light that’s better for us. Someone who smokes, for instance, might come up with the theory that people who smoke are more relaxed and, as stress is known to be bad for you, it’s actually healthy to smoke.

Another phenomenon is called the sunk cost fallacy. For this one we usually think of someone sat in front a betting machine, feeding money into it and going even further into the red. Why don’t they stop? Why keep losing more and more?

The answer is that it’s really hard to walk away from a loss. As humans we just can’t stand it.

Imagine you’ve gone to see a film at the cinema and to your disappointment it sucks. Do you walk out? Most people tend to sit there until the end, hating every minute of it but not leaving because they paid to be there.

Or imagine buying a terrible sandwich from a shop. As long as it doesn’t make us feel ill, we often eat out way through it because we’ve already paid for it.

In neither case is there any chance of getting the money back. So why do we continue with the miserable experience?

We can see this in people’s beliefs when, for example, they join a cult that says the world is going to end. They tell all the friends and family, give away everything they own, await the big day and….nothing happens.

Do they turn around and admit they were a bit foolish?

Many people won’t. They’ve simply invested too much of their identity into the belief to ever change their minds. Instead they’ll decide there was an error in predicting the date and prepare for the next apocalypse.¬†

We all want things to be true

xkcd.com

Think of some of the things you believe to be true.

Do your friends and family think the same?

Does it suit you to think this opinion is correct?

Have you believed this for so long that it would feel weird to change your mind?

The truth is that we all susceptible to these influences. It’s not a matter of education or intelligence or honesty. It’s simply about being human.

But once you’re aware of how these processes can work on you there is at least the chance that you’ll recognize them. It might still be hard to change your mind but it’s possible.

It’s how change happens, both in us and in the world at large.

 

Further reading:

https://www.simplypsychology.org/a-level-social.html#:~:text=Social%20influence%20is%20the%20process,and%20obedience%2C%20and%20minority%20influence. – more on how social influence works with some great examples

https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/what-is-motivated-reasoning-how-does-it-work-dan-kahan-answers – more on motivated reasoning

https://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/how-the-sunk-cost-fallacy-makes-you-act-stupid.html – more on the sunk cost fallacy