It's Almost Impossible to Convince People They're Wrong About Stuff

It happens constantly on the internet: Despite mountains of scientifically rigorous concrete evidence, there are certain falsehoods that people simply insist on believing. Sexism isn't real. Vaccines cause autism. Barack Obama is a secret Muslim Kenyan socialist terrorist. Fat people are lazy. Pitch Perfect is a good movie.*

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's masterpiece yesterday, and attempting to reconcile it with the 67% of millennials who believe that they're "post-racial" and that race does not present a "barrier to accomplishments," was astonishingly frustrating. How much more "proof" of persistent, debilitating, systemic racism does the "racism isn't real" crowd need? What else can activists and academia present that they haven't already? How many studies do we need? How many prisons? How many deaths?

This human compulsion toward willful ignorance—this avoidance of inconvenient facts—pervades every election season, every climate change debate, every measles outbreak, every psychic friend phone scam, every Mayan Calendar panic, every Tea Party rally. It doesn't matter how watertight the counter-argument, when it comes to certain issues, people just "feel" that they're correct.


But why? When someone tells you that you're wrong, and shows you specifically how and why, why cling to that misbelief? Pride? Paranoia? Simple bigotry? Some tasty combo of the three? And is there any way to get through to people who are determined to force the facts to adhere to their worldview, instead of the other way around?

Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker has a fascinating round-up on the science of correcting people's erroneous beliefs (it's worth reading the whole thing):


In a study from 2013, Kelly Garrett and Brian Weeks looked to see if political misinformation—specifically, details about who is and is not allowed to access your electronic health records—that was corrected immediately would be any less resilient than information that was allowed to go uncontested for a while. At first, it appeared as though the correction did cause some people to change their false beliefs. But, when the researchers took a closer look, they found that the only people who had changed their views were those who were ideologically predisposed to disbelieve the fact in question. If someone held a contrary attitude, the correction not only didn't work—it made the subject more distrustful of the source. A climate-change studyfrom 2012 found a similar effect. Strong partisanship affected how a story about climate change was processed, even if the story was apolitical in nature, such as an article about possible health ramifications from a disease like the West Nile Virus, a potential side effect of change. If information doesn't square with someone's prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they're weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.

And, the crux of the issue:

False beliefs, it turns out, have little to do with one's stated political affiliations and far more to do with self-identity: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person do I want to be? All ideologies are similarly affected.

...And that, ultimately, is the final, big piece of the puzzle: the cross-party, cross-platform unification of the country's élites, those we perceive as opinion leaders, can make it possible for messages to spread broadly. The campaign against smoking is one of the most successful public-interest fact-checking operations in history. But, if smoking were just for Republicans or Democrats, change would have been far more unlikely. It's only after ideology is put to the side that a message itself can change, so that it becomes decoupled from notions of self-perception.

"The message can't change," Konnikova says, "unless the perceived consensus among figures we see as opinion and thought leaders changes first." Awesome. Sounds like a plan. If anyone knows any thought leaders, LET ME KNOW. Antarctica has some rather pressing grievances.

*HEYO. BURNED. I BURNED YOUR MOVIE. (Seriously, though. Everyone in that movie is my favorite person, and I'm a choir nerd 4 lyfe, but I just didn't connect with it at all. I feel like a traitor.)

Image via Getty.