How Facts Backfire

How Facts Backfire July 12, 2010

Via WitchVox, here’s an interesting article from Joe Keohane of the Boston Globe. The headline reads: “Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains.” When presented with new facts, most people don’t change their opinions. Instead, they react and become even more entrenched in their previously held ideas.

I can’t say I was exactly shocked by this, though if the phenomenon is as widespread as this article implies, that may be simply because it confirms my own previously held opinion that people are stubborn and hardheaded. I’ve had lots of experience presenting unwelcome and inconvenient facts to people who don’t want to believe them – so they don’t.

I’ll leave the political implications to others. I’m more interested in what this means personally and religiously.

It matters what we believe. There is a reading in the UU Hymnal by this title – it speaks of some beliefs being helpful and others harmful. It’s very true. But it goes beyond this. Your experiences of the world are interpreted according to your ideas about the world. As the old cliché goes, whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.

If you want to bring about change, presenting the facts isn’t enough. You have to change how people feel about the situation – you have to change the story as well.

Be alert for this phenomenon in your own life. When he was criticized for having changed his position on monetary policy, legendary economist John Maynard Keynes said “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Don’t be afraid to say “I was wrong.”

As much as we like to think otherwise, we humans are not rational creatures.

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  • I think this is part of is meant by the warning against "idolatries of the mind and spirit…"