Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It!

Jeanne Ellis Ormrod


As I’m sure you’ve learned from your own experiences, some people hold on tightly to certain beliefs regardless of strong, credible evidence that contradicts those beliefs. For example, some people steadfastly reject the notions that the Earth is definitely warming up and that human activities are a significant contributor to such warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence supporting both conclusions. And in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many voters pledged early allegiance to a certain candidate – perhaps Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders – and stubbornly rejected any information or arguments that might cast doubt on their chosen candidate’s qualifications and temperament for serving in the nation’s highest office.

Changing one’s beliefs about a particular situation or phenomenon in the face of credible contradictory evidence is a process known as conceptual change. Some people adamantly resist undergoing conceptual change when it is clearly called for; instead, they dig their heels firmly in a mental morass of misinformation and untenable opinions. Why do they do so?

Several factors appear to contribute to this phenomenon we might call conceptual rigidity. One factor is a general disposition for virtually all of us to seek evidence that supports our current beliefs and to either disregard or actively discredit any evidence that contradicts those beliefs – a disposition known as confirmation bias. For the most part, we humans like to be right, not wrong. Our general tendency to seek confirmatory rather than contradictory evidence can be particularly influential when we are emotionally or culturally attached to our current beliefs – for instance, when believing certain things enhances our sense of emotional wellbeing or our relationships with people we hold near and dear to us. But this wanting-to-be-right inclination makes us susceptible to falling for conspiracy theories, “fake news,” and other information, either in our physical world or on the Internet, that have little or no basis in reality.

A second, albeit related, factor is a personality characteristic known as a need for closure. More specifically, some people have a tendency to seek quick and easy answers to even the most complex situations and problems. For example, it’s much easier to think “No, it’s not happening” or “God will take care of us” than to ponder compelling scientific evidence indicating that the Earth’s temperature is gradually rising, that human activity is at least partly responsible for the trend, and that our lifestyles will need to change in major ways as the planet gets progressively warmer. This need for closure – this need for fast, simple answers even in the face of complexity – can be contrasted with open-mindedness, a general inclination to suspend judgment about a complex issue while considering alternative viewpoints and multiple sources of evidence. Open-minded individuals are much more likely to revise their beliefs when credible evidence calls for such revision.

A third factor that enters into the mix is the extent to which an individual intentionally and objectively analyzes information in an effort to determine its likely veracity. Here I’m talking about critical thinking – evaluating the accuracy, credibility, and worth of information and lines of reasoning. Some people are more disposed to engage in critical thinking than are others. Those who don’t critically evaluate the things they see, hear, and read are likely to take those things at face value, regardless of any faulty arguments and implausible evidence presented in support of alleged “facts.” The Internet is a particularly noteworthy culprit when it comes to presenting misinformation: Many adults (including many college students) naively assume that anything they see posted on Internet websites has reasonable credibility, when, in fact, even the craziest of nontruths can be easily posted on sites that a search engine such as Google or Bing might call up.

So how can reasonable, well-informed people convince their fellow human beings that certain ideas have little or no basis in reality? Changing other people’s minds about a complex and possibly controversial issue can be a challenging task, and some individuals will remain unconvinced no matter what information and evidence they’re given. But certain strategies do seem to have an impact when the folks that need convincing are a captive audience, as is true when those folks are students in formal educational settings. I present these strategies in a separate post on this blog: “That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It! – Part 2: Promoting Conceptual Change.”

Find out more about ‘How we Think and Learn:Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Implications

About The Author

Jeanne Ellis Ormrod

Jeanne Ellis is Professor Emerita in UNC's School of Psychological Sciences & author of 'How We Think and Learn' ...

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