We all have those Facebook friends; you know, the ones who share every post that backs what they believe. Whether we’re talking about Trump-haters, militant vegans or conspiracy theorists, we all know people who think that, if only we had enough information, if only we had all the facts, we would “get it” and see things their way.
The problem is that most of us aren’t open to changing our minds, even when the facts contradict our beliefs. Most of us believe that we are better informed than others on the issues we care about, even if we really can’t tell you when and where we acquired those beliefs.
You’ve heard the statement, “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up!” We mostly use it when talking about someone else who is being stubborn, but we certainly don’t think that we are guilty of acting that way.
Studies have shown that rather than convincing us, opposing arguments have the opposite effect; they cause us to become more deeply entrenched in our beliefs, in a phenomenon dubbed the “backfire effect.”
A personal example will serve to illustrate this point. A co-worker recently switched from smoking cigarettes to using electronic cigarettes, or vaping. I, unwisely, proceeded to share with her a scientific study I had just come across that outlined why vaping might be just as dangerous for your health as smoking is. She got angry with me, saying, “My doctor told me it was healthy and I really think he would know more about it than you would!”
I, in fact, didn’t know anything about it other than what was in the study I had read, so I offered to forward it to her. Needless to say, she didn’t want to read it. If it hadn’t been for the “backfire effect,” she might have been able to figure out her doctor hadn’t actually done extensive research on the safety of vaping and that his recommendation wasn’t really well-informed. As it was, I probably caused her to vape even more. I have since learned to mind my own business when it comes to that subject.
Most of us really don’t want the facts. We don’t really want to know what’s in the food we eat; we don’t want to know what smoking is doing to us; we don’t want to know what overeating or drinking too much is doing to our body; and we don’t want to know why, whether or when our political party is wrong. Most of us will simply dismiss or reject information that contradicts our opinions on any given subject. We aren’t as open-minded as we want to think we are. Maybe that’s because we don’t want to change our eating habits, quit smoking, start dieting or be convinced of anything that contradicts what we believe we already know.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about important issues. What it does mean is that the barrage of tweets and Facebook posts aren’t going to have the effect you’d hoped they would. They are, in fact, having the opposite effect. It also means that if your co-worker or friend has a strong opinion about something, you’re most likely wasting your time and possibly the friendship by arguing about it.
At some point, these endless online and in-person arguments are more about our need to be right than they are about needing to help others see the light. It also means that you are probably just as stubbornly clinging to some very obviously wrong beliefs as I am. But then again, if you already believe that you can, in fact, change people’s minds by arguing with them, I’ve already wasted my time writing all this.
Rob Vajko lives in Purdy.
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