April 18, 2017

Does it seem like people are deeply rooted in their opinions these days? On topics across the spectrum, people have made their decision and they’re sticking to it. Having strong convictions isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, the challenge with these deeply-rooted opinions occurs when they are contrary to logic and proven facts and yet, universally, we do not change our minds.

What is it that allows us to see and hear the truth and still stand firm behind the opposite perspective?

It turns out, there’s evolutionary and scientific reasons our brains are seemingly stuck; it has to do with needing to be social and collaborative in order to survive. In their book, “The Enigma of Reason,” cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber say:

Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for The New Yorker, summarized Mercier and Sperber’s findings and beliefs:

Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups. ~ “Why facts don’t change our minds” The New Yorker, February 27, 2017

Although it seems we should have evolved beyond this trap, the reality is information technology is outpacing our evolution and our commitment to rationalizing unfounded opinions holds strong. As reported in The New Yorker article (and as I recall from my college education decades ago), countless psychology studies have been conducted that prove how unwilling humans are to change their minds. In study after study, participants were presented with accurate information that countered their original and/or unfounded opinions, and in every study, the majority refused to change their mind. In many cases, participants became even more dedicated to their own (proven inaccurate) perspective.

Today we often hear about confirmation bias – equally, traditional and digital media’s way of surrounding us with information that mirrors what we already know, and our own habits of choosing to engage with information that reinforces our existing opinions. Confirmation bias is a result of our evolution to rationalize our own opinions even in spite of facts and science.

Why are we so passionate about our opinions these days? What is it about our current environment – on any side of a debate – that makes us so persistent in our opinions that we cannot change our minds? Clearly, it’s no longer an evolutionary need that makes us irrational in the face of reason.

It’s time to educate ourselves and others to the exact opposite – an understanding that our fitness to survive is now linked to our ability to adapt our opinions to the truth.