Saturday, October 29, 2016

Why You Can't Debate Someone Out of a Belief She Is Proud of Believing: Identity Protective Cognition

Stuart K. Hayashi

Screen shot from the video "Consuming Hypocrisy"by Rhys Southan and Eliza Wren.

You may recall that earlier I said something about this. If you and Mr. X argue over a controversy, and Mr. X's identity and self-image are not connected to his having a particular conclusion about that controversy, he can change his mind in the face of new evidence. But if Mr. X's identity and self-image are wrapped up in having a particular conclusion about that controversy, despite the evidence contradicting that conclusion, you will have a difficult time changing Mr. X's mind. This is especially the case if Mr. X's belief is tied to some group wherein he holds some affiliation; maintaining the belief signifies loyalty to that group. I learned from Adam Conover's Election Special on TruTV that there is a name for this phenomenon: Identity Protective Cognition.

Paul Slovic and a team of psychologists did the following experiment. For the control, people were quizzed on a particular math problem, and they got the correct answer. For the experiment, all the people have particular strong stands on the issue of gun control. They were presented with the same math problem, except they were told that this related to the issue of gun safety. This time, the people experimented on did not get the correct answer, as the answer contradicted the positions they had taken on this controversial issue.

This is a big reason for the futility of "flame wars" over Facebook. Imagine I am a Young Earth Creationist and my parents taught me to be such (no, in reality I am not that). If you and I get into an argument about this, you may think that you are simply correcting me on a simple issue of fact. But, for me, it is deeper than that; I pride myself on being a Young Earth Creationist; it is part of my identity. Therefore, if you tell me that I am correct on everything in my life except this one area, I will still interpret that as your telling me my whole life is a lie. Worse, you're telling me that my parents fed me lies since I was a baby.

When people get out of lifelong beliefs such as Young Earth Creationism, it is almost never because someone argued them out of it. What happened was that something happened in their experiences that gave them some impetus to question their long-held beliefs. Then, in the privacy of their own time alone, they decided to look into other viewpoints, such as reading atheist blogs. The hard sell is no way to get around Identity Protective Cognition.