Some Forms of Stupidity Have Little Hope of a Cure


Remember when I wrote about the bad logic employed by another person's facebook friend? Someone who stated things like "FACT: Adam fell into mortality about 6000 years ago:" or "FACT: Only four people I know of on Earth can actually tell us what the planet was really like 2000 years ago. (John and 3 Nephites)"?

I admit it: I had signed on for the project of getting this guy to admit that these things weren't "facts" at all. Luckily circumstances removed this person from my experience, so that now he is only a vague, unpleasantly memory. Because chances are, I would never change his mind. Nor will anyone else.

Here's a study, discussed in the Boston Globe, that addresses why: people with wrong opinions don't want to change them. They actually reject facts when confronted with them. In fact, "facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters -- the people making decisions about how the country runs -- aren't blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

"The general idea is that it's absolutely threatening to admit you're wrong," says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon -- known as "backfire" -- is "a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance."

The good news is that there seems to be at least one way to counteract this trend: boost people's self-esteem:

Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you'll listen -- and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won't. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

But how do you make people feel good about themselves when the entire world mocks them for the silly underwear they wear? I mean, how do you make them feel good about themselves in a legitimate way, and not in the "oh, wow, you're so oppressed, and that's proof that you're extra special and God really loves you" way?


This may be a stretch for some beliefs, but I think Stephen Covey's 7 Habits has some good general advice for this. Seek first to understand, then to be understood is habit 5. Trying to understand someone, I think, helps in bringing their 'guard' down and may allow for an opposing view.

Hi Chris--

I appreciate the spirit of your comment, but one thing is this: I generally have at least a vague idea of where someone in the church is coming from on religious topics--and I often know almost exactly where they are coming from. I guess I could just let them talk about their beliefs, but the thing is, Mormons are so used to proselytizing from a position that assumes that they have "the" truth to offer but little truth to receive, that Mormons frequently forget to turn around and ask whoever they're talking to, "Well, what do you believe?"

For example: how often do missionaries in foreign cultures like Asia really try to learn about Buddhism or Taoism or whatever is the religion of the people they're trying to turn into Christians? Maybe they've gotten better at in the last 20-odd years, but when I was a missionary, it was made pretty clear to us that studying erroneous religions was a waste of time--all we were supposed to do was reinforce our familiarity with our own dogma.

Yeah I know what you mean. I'm an exmormon as well. I served a mission too and sometimes people would tell us they'll listen to our message if we listen to theirs. I was always up for this but many of my companions were not.

Anyway, it all depends on the situation. Many times, it's just fruitless to argue and even try to attempt to 'understand' the opposing view. The internet makes debates even more difficult because it lacks the non-verbal communication. A lot of times I feel like I come off as very sarcastic on the net - especially since I don't like using the smiley emoticon.

So you're right, trying to 'understand' them or 'boost' their 'self-esteem' is usually fruitless. But if the other person seems like less of a jackass, then I think trying to empathize (or even faking to empathize) with their view can create a situation where they might empathize in return.

Hi Chris--

Well, I'm at least glad I responded to the actual content of your first comment and tried to understand what you were saying AND follow my own advice, because I admit there was just a moment when I wondered, "is this really some elder's quorum president, come here to lecture to me?"

the fact that you turned out not to be but that the conversation could have gone very differently if I hadn't presumed that you were speaking in good faith is, I think, really strong evidence that what you recommend does actually work.

and yeah, I'm not crazy about emoticons either. I declared emphatically around 1994 that I would NEVER use them. I broke that vow eventually.... but in a perfect world, I wouldn't have had to. Or rather, in MY perfect world, no one would use them.

Convince them that everyone suffers from the same shit...and that the expression of that shit is the only thing that is different.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on July 13, 2010 6:18 AM.

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