The science of why we reject science and what we can do about it

The science of why we reject science and what we can do about it August 16, 2016


You’re able to read this right now because of science! From electricity, to antibiotics, to computers, science allows us to learn from the world and can greatly improve our quality of life. Unfortunately, science can also be hard to understand, which makes people vulnerable to believe harmful myths such as denying climate change, avoiding vaccines, and using homeopathy instead of medicine. It’s tempting to simply blame such misunderstandings on a not receiving a thorough education, but that is only part of the equation. Recent research has shown how people’s social identities can contribute to why they reject scientific evidence.

Social identities consist of values, norms, and roles that inform us how we act and gives order to a chaotic world. These social identities (such as being a Democrat or a Christian) are often internalized as someone’s own sense of self. The people we associate with often help form one’s social identity as well. When the identity is threatened, the person may feel personally attacked.

An identity could be threatened by being exposed to information that conflicts with a particular worldview. Thus, conflicting information can be seen as an actual attack on self-worth, which can make people engage their defensive biases. When we engage such defensive biases, people are likely to maintain or even strengthen their previously held beliefs despite being exposing to conflicting information.  For example, a conservative whose identity makes them motivated to reject climate change may feel threatened when seeing a report about the existence of climate change, and then shut down. Likewise, a liberal whose identity makes them motivated to reject the safety of GMOs may make them shut down when reading information that shows GMOs are harmless.  This phenomenon is called the “back-fire effect”.

We need to fight against global warming so this guy can keep his home! Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The psychological term for why this happens is motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning makes us biased to pay attention to information that confirms our worldview and reject information that is not consistent with it. That is why it can be so tricky to reason with people who are engaged in the back-fire effect. They are often not perceiving information the same way as someone who does not feel their identity is threatened by the information.

So science has found that people are unlikely to change their mind when presented with information that conflicts with their worldview. What can we all do about it to help more people accept scientific information?

Well, one technique could be separate one’s identity from the information. This is tricky, but using the right language can be effective. For example, information about climate change may threaten a conservative’s identity. However, if this information about climate change was presented in a way that was consistent with other identity values such as saving money, then the individual may be less defensive. Likewise, a liberal may support GMOs more if one explains to them how they help the environment. Reframing information in a way that is less identity threatening may make people more receptive to scientific information.

There is also some research suggesting that boosting one’s sense of self (called self-affirmation in the academic literature) can actually make people more open to identity threatening information. For example, having someone write about their important values can make them more open to seeing the other side of a political argument. Writing about one’s values and consequently boosting their self-esteem makes one better equipped to handle identity threats. Some research suggests that self-esteem boosts can have long-term effects for accepting scientific information, but we are still trying to figure out exactly how they are maintained enough for attitude change.

Social psychological research has demonstrated that it is not just a lack of education that can make people reject scientific evidence. There are several social and emotional factors that need to be accounted for as well. Information that threatens social identities is much more likely to be rejected before it is thoroughly processed. However, disentangling one’s identity from the information and boosting their self-esteem may reduce their defensive biases. Once their defensive biases are lowered, they are more likely to listen and engage with the scientific evidence being presented. Ignoring science can prevent progress from happening and can hinder our quality of life so it’s in our best interest that we are all informed as possible.

So the next time you see someone misinformed about science, don’t just yell facts at them! Try to get them to think about the science in a way that isn’t threatening to them. It can be frustrating, but they may not learn anything once they get defensive. This is challenging and requires patience as well as understanding. However, if we all work together to educate each other, we can make the world a smarter place!

[Featured image from CollegeDegrees360 under Creative Commons 2.0]

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