Compared to many other animals, humans are incredibly intelligent. Moreover, we have collectively accrued masses of data and facts, to the extent that we now refer to our present period as the Age of Information. Surely this large body of facts play a central role in our decision making about the world, right?
Well, unfortunately not. In fact, we often eschew facts for ideology. As a case example, let’s consider the strongly-held belief on the political right that industries and businesses are efficient and generative, whereas governments and state spending are considered inconveniences, or worse, impediments to development. Such beliefs represent an ideology – an organized set of beliefs that help us to make sense of the world. In keeping with this belief, companies such as Google and Apple are widely held up as golden examples of the power of self-driven innovation. But is this true? As observed by Mazzucato (2013), the Apple company in its early days was given a $500,000 cash injection in the form of a new business grant by the government. As she points out, even when not directly funded, private businesses benefit from all kinds of state-funded research, including the development of “the internet, GPS, touchscreen displays and even the voice-activated smartphone assistant Siri.” Some of these developments obviously come from universities, many state funded, but many also find their origins in military research, which is clearly state-funded. Mazzucato goes on to point out that the NIH in the US pours tremendous sums into basic research benefitting the pharmaceutical industry, and the NSF financially supported the creation of the now-famous Google algorithm.
Upon exposure to such information, how are people likely to respond? People supporting state-funded enterprise and a strong government role in life will acknowledge these findings, perhaps even feeling that they “knew it all along” (even if they didn’t), what psychologists call the hindsight bias. Those opposing state-funds in business and healthcare are not likely to objectively read such information and dispassionately change their viewpoints to fit this new information. Rather, when faced with evidence disconfirming deeply held beliefs, we often ignore the new information, “doubling down” on the original belief. In psychology, we call this belief perseverance. Given that people will even cling to rather meaningless and newly formed beliefs, you can imagine how tenaciously we cling to deeply held, value-affirming beliefs linked to political ideologies. But we don’t just reinvest in the original belief; we often go on the attack, challenging the credibility of the source of the information or facts.
Clearly we can dismiss facts out of hand in preference of ideology. Even more troubling, we can also eschew ideology (or its content) to follow our social/political identities. In a fascinating study, Cohen (2003) manipulated message content and the supposed source of a message. When people were not given the position of their political party, they used their own beliefs as a source of information to guide their judgements. However, when informed how their political party voted or passed judgement, people went along with their political party, regardless of the message content and its relation to their own beliefs. Yet people were unaware of this effect (despite assuming that it happens to other people). In some ways, this should come as no surprise, given that we seek to fit in with others, to have a place within a social group, and often do not have sophisticated or informed political opinions on all topics. Voting with the herd can not only be easy but functionally adaptive.
You might ask “at the end of the day, does any of this matter?” You bet it does. Consider how we entrust our political leaders to make life-altering decisions after entrusting them to read and process all kinds of facts. Leading climate scientists, for instance, are “95% certain” that climate change is created by human-led activity. Yet many politicians have staked their careers denying climate change, and therefore find themselves clinging tenaciously to their original beliefs. With the weight of the evidence accumulating, it is true, some are slowly coming around. But facts don’t easily change ideology, leading instead to moves to underplay the risks of such climate change.
In many ways, this all reminds me of a topic I teach in one of my undergraduate classes. There is a belief in the so-called “Hot Hand” in basketball -- the belief that if a player is “hot” (i.e., just successfully made a shot on the basket) he/she is more likely to successfully make the next shot, relative to other players on the team. Sounds compelling enough, right? But the data simply don’t back this up (you can find more on this topic at these websites http://psych.cornell.edu/people/thomas-gilovich and http://thehothand.blogspot.ca/). As interesting as it is that people hold such false beliefs, it is even more interesting how people cling to their original belief in the hot hand after learning that it is not supported by the facts. I’ve experienced this in class, where basketball fans become even MORE committed to their belief in the hot hand, even after I show them statistics and clear-cut demonstrations disconfirming the notion. After the first scientific papers emerged on this topic, basketball coaches actively disparaged the researchers, claiming that the researchers were clueless and that the findings were meaningless. Clearly, a more objective and sensible approach would be to thank these researchers for their hard work and expertise in statistically and empirically testing an assumption that could have serious implications for game strategy (and thus chances of winning championships etc).
This all looks rather comical and trivial in the context of sports, but the implications become evident when placed in the context of curbing climate change or plotting the financial course for our economies. Unfortunately, being drawn to ideology over facts is an all-to-present feature of human psychology, whether one is on the political left or right. The good news is that becoming aware of such biases can be the first step to overcoming them. The best defence is education (formal or informal), and the best approach to understanding the world is through open-mindedness and a hunger for facts (where possible). Chances are that if you agree with me, you’ll find this column eminently sensible; if you disagree, you’ll conclude that the author is driven by ideology.
References and Suggested Readings:
Cohen, J.L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 808-822. DOI: 10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2068
Mazzucato, M. (2013). State of innovation. New Scientist, Aug 24-30, 26-27.