Our brains rapidly and automatically process opinions we agree with as if they are facts

In a post-truth world of alternative facts, there is understandable interest in the psychology behind why people are so attached to their opinions and why it is so difficult to change minds.

In a post-truth world of alternative facts, there is understandable interest in the psychology behind why people are generally so wedded to their opinions and why it is so difficult to change minds.


We already know a lot about the deliberate mental processes that people engage in to protect their world view, from seeking out confirmatory evidence (the “confirmation bias“) to questioning the methods used to marshal contradictory evidence (the scientific impotence excuse).

Now a team led by Anat Maril at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem report in Social Psychological and Personality Science that they have found evidence of rapid and involuntarily mental processes that kick-in whenever we encounter opinions we agree with, similar to the processes previously described for how we respond to basic facts.

The researchers write that “their demonstration of such a knee-jerk acceptance of opinions may help explain people’s remarkable ability to remain entrenched in their convictions”.

The background to this involves something you’ve probably heard of, the Stroop Effect – how we’re slower to name the ink colour of colour-denoting words when the word meaning doesn’t match the ink, like RED written in blue ink. The Stroop Effect occurs because our brains rapidly and involuntarily process the colour meaning of the word, which interferes with our processing of the ink colour.

A while back, psychologists showed there’s a similar phenomenon for facts (they called it the “Epistemic Stroop Effect”) – we’re quicker to verify that factual, than non-factual, statements are spelled correctly, suggesting that our rapid discernment of factual accuracy interacts with our judgment about spelling (even though the factual accuracy of the statements is irrelevant to the spelling task).

Now, across four studies, Maril and her team have found that something similar occurs for opinions. They composed 88 opinion statements, written in Hebrew, that covered politics, personal tastes and social issues, such as “The internet has made people more isolated” or “The internet has made people more sociable”. They presented dozens of  Israeli participants with versions of these statements that were grammatical or not (e.g. the gender or use of singular/plural were incorrect) and the participants’ task was to indicate as rapidly as possible whether the grammar was correct. Later, the participants were shown all the statements again and asked to indicate whether they agreed with them.

The key finding was that participants were quicker to identify statements as grammatically correct when they agreed with the opinion expressed in the statement, compared with when they disagreed (there was no difference for time taken to identify ungrammatical statements as ungrammatical). This was the case even though their agreement with the opinion expressed in the statements was irrelevant to the grammatical task at hand. “The results demonstrate that agreement with a stated opinion can have a rapid and involuntary effect on its cognitive processing,” the researchers said, which is similar to the epistemic Stroop Effect observed for facts.

In their final study, the researchers created a variation of the task that required participants to indicate whether statements (e.g. “coriander is tasty” or “coriander is disgusting”) indicated something positive or negative. For statements that they agreed with, participants were faster to answer “yes”, whether they were identifying that the statement was positive or identifying that it was negative. The researchers said this confirms that we have a rapid, involuntary cognitive bias is for answering in the affirmative to semantic questions about opinion statements that we agree with (ruling out effects of fluency or unfamiliarity that might have confounded the results for judging the grammar of statements in the earlier studies).

“The current findings suggest that despite adults’ understanding of the notion of subjectivity, they may react to opinion-incongruent statements as if they were factually incorrect,” the researchers said, adding, “The distinction between factual truths and opinions held to be true is pivotal for rational discourse. However this distinction may apparently be somewhat murky within human psychology.”

More generally they said their paradigm provided “an addition to the social psychologists’ tool kit” that could be used as a new way to explore implicitly held opinions (providing an alternative to the implicit association test, for example). Further research could also explore whether the effect described here is moderated by factors like stress or peer pressure, or individual characteristics like one’s political leanings.

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

This article was originally published on BPS Research Digest. Read the original article.


Befriend your ideological opposite. It’s fun.

Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
  • Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
  • "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

3 ways to find a meaningful job, or find purpose in the job you already have

Learn how to redesign your job for maximum reward.

Videos
  • Broaching the question "What is my purpose?" is daunting – it's a grandiose idea, but research can make it a little more approachable if work is where you find your meaning. It turns out you can redesign your job to have maximum purpose.
  • There are 3 ways people find meaning at work, what Aaron Hurst calls the three elevations of impact. About a third of the population finds meaning at an individual level, from seeing the direct impact of their work on other people. Another third of people find their purpose at an organizational level. And the last third of people find meaning at a social level.
  • "What's interesting about these three elevations of impact is they enable us to find meaning in any job if we approach it the right way. And it shows how accessible purpose can be when we take responsibility for it in our work," says Hurst.
Keep reading Show less

Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
Surprising Science
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
Keep reading Show less

UPS has been discreetly using self-driving trucks to deliver cargo

TuSimple, an autonomous trucking company, has also engaged in test programs with the United States Postal Service and Amazon.


PAUL RATJE / Contributor
Technology & Innovation
  • This week, UPS announced that it's working with autonomous trucking startup TuSimple on a pilot project to deliver cargo in Arizona using self-driving trucks.
  • UPS has also acquired a minority stake in TuSimple.
  • TuSimple hopes its trucks will be fully autonomous — without a human driver — by late 2020, though regulatory questions remain.
Keep reading Show less