The essential Tammy O. sent along a great article from the Boston Globe that really is required reading. You’ve heard the thesis before – facts actually make many Americans more attached to their pre-existing false beliefs – but I’ve never read it put so cogently, and in many cases, so hopelessly.
There’s a lot in the article I’ll reference next week when I plan on mounting another political offensive guaranteed to be offensive, but there was a paragraph that stood out for a completely different reason:
What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as “motivated reasoning.”
Suddenly I saw this not as a political problem, but an emotional one – and the “information” was not some news source, but the narrative I was telling myself about the world around me. In other words, this statement defines depression.
I know this barely qualifies for self-help-book epiphany, but think about it: if you “actively dismiss” information that doesn’t fit into your belief about yourself, it’s no wonder that people stay miserable forever. If you’re a melancholic person, prone to depression and think the world is a miserable place… your own brain is working overtime to make sure you stay that way.
The Boston Globe piece mentions a study where subjects were given articles to read that contained a blatant falsehood (something like “WMDs were found in Iraq”) with a correction of the falsehood printed at the end. The conservatives who read the article believed more strongly that WMDs had been found in Iraq even after reading the correction.
Forget about the political implications of this, and concentrate on your self-image. If you swap out “conservative” for “depressed”, then it stands to reason any information that could make you happier is not only ignored, it’s not even seen. In fact, it can make you even more depressed.
I’m always fascinated by built-in systems that are so curiously self-destructive. Further proof that the world constantly demands you stay engaged, stay puzzled, and stay flexible, no matter the subject.