Why Facts Do Little to Change Political Beliefs

October 27th 2016

If you've been paying attention to the presidential election, you have probably seen media outlets' live fact-checking. In theory, it sounds like an important democratic tool to check candidates' statements and to debunk their lies, such as this bold one told by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at a September press conference:

Trump said he "finished" the birther controversy, a conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. In fact, he perpetuated and strengthened it. "This American Life" host Ira Glass expressed alarm over the "boldness" of the lie.

"I feel worried about the country, that we live in a country where so many people distrust fact-based media and fact-based journalists and are getting their information from other news sources and that things like this can enter the atmosphere and become true for so many people. ... I feel worried."

Glass's dismay points to a larger question: Why do facts seem to have little power to change people's minds?

To answer this question, ATTN: talked with Troy Campbell, a business professor at the University of Oregon, who studies identity and beliefs. Campbell and a team of researchers analyzed the way people treat facts that contradict their political or religious beliefs in a 2015 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Here are some key insights from his research.

People resist facts that make them feel bad about themselves.

People, no matter their political leaning, are motivated to resist facts that threaten their beliefs and identities, Campbell said. "As causes become our identity, we don't just believe we are right anymore; we need to believe we are right to maintain self-worth."

"For instance people deny climate change because climate change facts seem to suggest they and their beliefs are terrible. People deny issues of racism because it suggest that they, their groups, and their lack of PC language is terrible."

If a fact doesn't make people feel bad about themselves, they won't resist it. Only when people's beliefs are highly threatened will they engage in bias, Campbell said.

"Our beliefs are who were are. We love who we are, and we want to protect who we are. When someone tells us that our beliefs are wrong, they are telling us who we are is wrong. Many people seem to be shocked by the level of denial in modern society. People should not be shocked; they should expect this is exactly how people are going to respond."

Everyone deals with facts in ways that support their preferred beliefs.

Bias is the norm, and people employ multiple strategies to resist facts that challenge their preferred beliefs, Campbell said. Here of some of the ways they do:

  • Denial, or denying the facts, arguing that they aren't true.
  • Scientific impotence, or arguing that current scientific practices do not allow you to measure or test facts surrounding their beliefs.
  • Flight from facts, or saying an issue is not something facts can be used to determine.

Campbell and his researchers asked people whether they thought that the legality of gay marriage should be based on facts or on moral opinion:

"When we showed them empirical studies that suggested the facts were on their side (e.g., gay parents were or were not as good at parenting), then they thought the issue should be decided based on facts. But when the facts were not on their side, they changed the reasoning of the belief structure and said that the facts were less important."

Both political parties are biased and find ways to uphold those biases, Campbell added.

"Probably the number one reason conservatives are less ‘fact-based' is that their beliefs tend to be criticized by fact-checkers more than liberals," Campbell said. "If the facts were against liberals, I think we would see a similar bias. People who feel a higher 'commitment to facts,' such as liberals, might not deny facts as others such as conservatives do, but they might engage in other strategies, such as massaging facts or rearranging them to support their beliefs."

To change the world, being right is not enough.

To effect change, we need to be psychologically correct in addition to being factually correct, Campbell said. "Psychological correctness takes into account how humans are, well, human, complete with irrationalities, identity concerns, insecurities, and limited willpower," he said. In other words, we need to be "clearer and nicer."

Campbell explained:

"Past research shows that when we clearly explain facts, use visuals, and explain the mechanism, belief change is more likely. Communicators can't just say, 'That is facts,' especially when there is any motivation or reason for people to be skeptical. For instance, a graph of climate change data is more convincing than a statement. Being right is not enough; a person has to properly communicate the fact.

"People defend their beliefs to defend their self-worth. We thus must communicate facts in ways that do not threaten people's self-worth. This can be as [easy] as not being directly hostile, or it can be more subtle, by finding ways to show how changing their beliefs are in line with their values. It can also come by simply showing that you are not the person's enemy."

The Black Lives Matter movement is a prime example: Protesters, including Snoop Dogg, take the time to show respect for the police.

"These type of actions can often be the most effective, because it means that admitting that there are problems in the police doesn't mean that the police or yourself who you see as 'on the side of the police' is completely wrong," Campbell said. "Almost the only way for different teams to get along is to see one another as on the same team."

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