Why people are wired to believe what they want to believe

And what we can do about that

When thinking about the current political moment, it’s important to remember that as human beings we’re wired to interpret new information as confirming our beliefs and reject it if it runs counter to those beliefs.

First, there’s physiology. Sara Gorman, a public health specialist, and her father, Jack, a psychiatrist, explore this matter in their book Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us. They cite research that suggests that processing information that supports one’s beliefs leads to a dopamine rush, which creates feelings of pleasure. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, says that “extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.”

On the flip side, “When something is inconsistent with existing beliefs, people tend to stumble. … Information that is inconsistent with one’s beliefs produces a negative affective response,” according to Norbert Schwarz, Eryn Newman and William Leach, experts in cognitive psychology.

In a sense, people see what they want to see, in order to believe what they want to believe. In addition, everyone likes to be proven right, and changing their views is an admission that they were wrong, or at least had an incomplete understanding of an issue.

Beliefs are also often tied up with identities. “If changing your belief means changing your identity, it comes at the risk of rejection from the community of people with whom you share that identity,” according to chemist and science writer Christine Herman. That is difficult to do.

In a sense, people see what they want to see, in order to believe what they want to believe. In addition, everyone likes to be proven right, and changing their views is an admission that they were wrong, or at least had an incomplete understanding of an issue.

Indeed the issue of partisan media goes all the way back to the founding of the United States. One example from the early years of the republic: Commenting about the election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Philadelphia’s Federalist paper, the Gazette of the United States, stated: “At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is: ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD — AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; Or impiously declare for JEFFERSON — AND NO GOD!!!’” This kind of thing was not unusual.

When thinking about society’s challenges, then, Americans need to understand the appeal of confirmation bias/motivated reasoning and recognize that they have manifested long before now. They shouldn’t glorify the past nor overstate the problems they face now.

At the same time, one shouldn’t underestimate the threat posed by this moment. The political culture is sick, the nation is increasingly polarized and fragmented, and people’s capacity to hear one another and reason together is deeply impaired. Facts are seen by many people as subjective, malleable and instrumental — a means to an ideological end. As a result, more and more Americans are living in a self-created reality.

A combination of factors has reshaped American politics: social media and new technology platforms; micro-targeting and psychometric methods in political campaigns; unprecedented polarization and hyper-partisanship; the fragmentation of traditional media sources and the advent of information silos; and the intervention in U.S. elections by hostile powers using fake news, misinformation and disinformation. The capacity to inject poison into the political bloodstream — in the form of lies and falsehoods, crazed conspiracy theories, smears and dehumanizing attacks — is unprecedented.

A decline of trust in institutions means there are far fewer institutions and figures of respect and authority who can declare certain things to be outside the boundaries of responsible discourse, who can say certain claims are preposterous and should be ignored. Instead, people who make false, outrageous and even indecent assertions are finding validation, affirmation and quite a large audience. Think of conspiracist Alex Jones’ baseless claims that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax.

In this environment, what’s the press to do? To start with, raise its standards and show more ideological balance, to report things more carefully than ever, to avoid errors that are often the result of rushing a story or wanting to sensationalize it. Journalists need to resist breathless reporting, jumping to premature conclusions and galloping ahead of the facts.

We can also take steps toward ensuring the “integrity of information.” We need relentless fact-checking, greater news literacy, steps to improve the quality of journalism, and efforts to identify and deter misinformation/disinformation sites. We need to work with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Reddit to promote greater transparency and other interventions to discourage the spread of false information. Corporations need to do due diligence on websites where they advertise to ensure they aren’t inadvertently supporting hateful and bigoted ones.

Ultimately, it’s every citizen’s responsibility is to refuse to accept the lies, the false narratives, and instead refute and expose them, and in so doing shatter the world of appearances.

If we as Americans dedicate ourselves to that end — if we commit to a civic education necessary to confront the challenges of the 21st century — we will live within the truth, and the truth shall set us free.

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Why people are wired to believe what they want to believe, And what we can do about that,” is part of a white paper series on media and democracy commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Read the complete paper and learn more about how information spreads and why polarization contributes to conditions making it difficult to correct falsehoods.

Pete Wehner is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the director of EPPC’s Faith Angle Forum. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues.