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Why You Won’t Change Your Mind Before the Election

November 4, 2016 | Comments

Opinion — hasty — often can incline to the wrong side, and then affection for one’s own opinion binds, confines the mind.
-Dante

Our long election season is almost over. In the next week you will continue to see ads and discussions about the presidential candidates, their qualifications, and their opinions. Your friends’ Facebook posts will become more frequent and perhaps more strident in favor of their chosen candidate.

There will be a lot of time and money spent on trying to get you to change your mind, but chances are, if you’ve already made up your mind about this election you are unlikely to change it.

Why is this? Because, in general, it is extremely difficult, and indeed uncommon, for people to change their minds. One of the main reasons changing your mind is so difficult, even around important decisions like for whom to vote, has to do with confirmation bias. Confirmation bias, the tendency to look for and pay more attention to information that confirms your preexisting beliefs, is a concept that most people understand instinctively. Let’s say that once in college you bought a desk at the popular furniture store IKEA. The desk was difficult to put together and fell apart quickly. You now refuse to buy anything else at IKEA.

To most of us, that makes perfect sense: you had a bad experience with a store and chose not to go back. Sometimes, people can be talked out of this one bad experience and be encouraged to try something again. But sometimes the belief (this store is bad) takes hold a little more firmly.

Since your bad desk experience, you’ve seen a lot of humorous memes about the difficulty of putting IKEA furniture together, and with each one, you nod your head knowingly. A lot of your friends have bought furniture at IKEA and it always looks great, but despite the evidence, you hold onto the belief that their bookshelf will fall apart any minute.

Over the years, your refusal to go to IKEA has become a little bit of a joke for your friends and family, many of whom love the high design/low price concept of the store. They tease you about your refusal to shop some place that others love. You’re known as the anti-IKEA guy, and you aren’t alone. There are Facebook groups and websites devoted to people who don’t like IKEA.

Not liking IKEA has become part of your identity. Even if you were to read an article favorably comparing the quality of IKEA furniture with furniture from other stores, you would not buy anything from IKEA. It has now been over twenty years since that first desk purchase and you still won’t go to IKEA.

When talking about consumer preferences, even an extreme case like this does not seem harmful. But what if we’re talking about issues of safety or health? What if a doctor rejects new information available about a drug she frequently prescribes? What if a new parent believes that vaccines cause autism and dismisses contrary information provided by her doctor as incorrect?

It would be comforting to think that only unintelligent people or people very different from ourselves are unwilling to change their minds. But the willingness to accept something as “fact” simply because it fits in with what we already believe is not limited to one type of person or one political party.

If you are a Democrat of a certain age, you’ve probably heard and believe the story that in the 1980s the Reagan administration tried to declare ketchup a “vegetable” for school lunches. If you’re a Republican of a certain age you may have heard that famous 1999 interview where Al Gore claimed that he “invented the Internet.” If you’re a little younger, you may not remember either of those instances, but reading them, you probably aren’t surprised to learn that Reagan considered ketchup a vegetable for poor children or that Gore was self-aggrandizing.

In truth, neither of those things happened. The statements became popular and repeated without being fact-checked because they fit in with what we already thought about Reagan’s administration and Gore’s personality.

Simply neglecting to fact check a statement or belief does not necessarily constitute confirmation bias. However, our willingness to believe demonstrably untrue items about politicians does reveal another key reason that it is so difficult to change people’s minds. Although Political opinions are not just our opinions, they are part of how we define our personalities and ourselves. If you view yourself as a liberal and in the middle of a political conversation someone says, “Yeah, right, just like ketchup is a vegetable,” it is very difficult to stop and say, “Wait, did you know that Ronald Reagan never actually suggested that?” To do so would leave you open to insults from your friends, and might also require you to question whether everything else you know about Reagan and his administration is true.

Being emotionally invested in an idea or belief is one barrier to changing our minds as is our desire to be part of a community (the anti-Reagan or anti-Gore crowd). The complexity of the idea is another. To some people, human-caused global warming is clearly a hoax, while to others it’s clearly reality. The majority of scientists state unequivocally that global warming is happening, and we at Critica also believe this. But in truth, very few of us completely understand the science behind global warming. The more complicated an idea, the harder it is to explain, and the less likely we are to want to really dive into the literature and make sure we understand the nuances. Instead, it is easier to stick with whichever belief we’ve already chosen. After all, our time is limited and valuable.

Unfortunately, even scientists, those we trust to understand the complexity of problems, can fall victim to confirmation bias.

So, if everyone, whether they are liberal or conservative, uneducated or educated, is equally susceptible to confirmation bias then how can we as individuals and a society make sure we are in fact searching for and receiving correct information?

We already know some keys to encouraging people to be open minded. For example, we know that one reason people don’t like to examine their beliefs is because it can be physically exhausting to do so. Examining disconfirming evidence requires effort on the part of our prefrontal cortex. So asking ourselves, or others, to look at complex or contradictory information when we, or they, are tired or emotional is unlikely to be productive.

Other lessons may be learned from situations in which large numbers of people have changed their minds. Take, for example, the large number of Bernie Sanders voters who became Hillary Clinton voters. Clearly this group identified strongly and emotionally with their candidate. Being a “Bernie Bro” was a point of pride for many people. Although some voters found it difficult to switch their alliance even after Sanders did so, many more began to work just as hard for Clinton as they had for Sanders. Finding out why could lead to important insights.

You may not change your mind before the election, but exploring and considering the reasons you find it hard to change your mind might help you be more open to new ideas in the future.

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