I’ve long suspected that the path to goodness can only be paved by fact. If you don’t have a strong sense of what’s real, what’s accurate and what isn’t, how the heck can you do what’s right? For example, a whole lot of inaccurate “fact” once/still props up racism, sexism, homophobia and a host of other human ills.
All of this makes recent findings by political scientists and psychologists unsettling. Researchers like the University of Michigan’s Brendan Nyhan found that not only do people cling to inaccurate facts, but they won’t change their minds even when presented with accurate information. Fighting lies with fact can even backfire, causing folks to cling more fiercely to their mistaken beliefs.
All of this lousy scientific news leads me to wonder how the human race has ever made progress. How have we ever changed our minds? And yet we have. Often. Slavery is no longer accepted and neither are Jim Crow laws. Our attitudes about the propriety of putting young children to work in factories have changed, along with our view of the facts about a host of other situations.
Our brains and hearts appear to be both completely inflexible, yet changeable. Scientists don’t seem to have a lot of answers yet about how we learn to see the world for what it is, but they do have a couple of interesting theories. One involves self-esteem.
Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.
Maybe there is hope for us fool human beings yet — that is if we can keep away from demogogues, a task that seems increasingly difficult these days.