Most people think they acquire their beliefs using a high standard of objectivity.
But recent arguments between people about issues like trans rights, vaccinations or Roe v. Wade point to a different reality.
Consider the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. There is plenty of evidence to show that widely accessible abortions lead to safer outcomes for children and people who can become pregnant. Moreover, data suggests abortion bans are ineffective, harmful and dangerous. A commitment to life, then, should favour comprehensive health care for those who can become pregnant — including abortions. It seems like there is a disconnect: People are not having fact-informed arguments.
The world is hyperspecialized
There is a reason facts are quickly lost in contentious arguments: individual people do not have the resources to deeply understand complex social issues. This is, in part, because the world in which we live is hyperspecialized. This means all reliable information is produced thanks to vast, interconnected fields of study. Humans have divided cognitive labour so we can know much more collectively than we can individually.
For example, the structural integrity of a bridge or the inner-workings of a cell phone are things the collective “we” understands better together.
But this feature of human knowledge is our downfall when it comes to the persistence of socially erroneous beliefs.
During arguments about social issues between those with differing opinions, one person often ends up insisting that if the other were only rational and could see the evidence, they would change their mind.
Socially problematic or false beliefs include things like racist, homophobic, transphobic and misogynstic ideas. These ideas can lead to significant, negative social consequences, especially for those belonging to marginalized communities.
False beliefs are pervasive in part because of the collective nature of human knowledge. As individuals, we can’t assess every issue since they require specialized knowledge. And while some may argue “do your own research,” individuals don’t necessarily have access to the best avenues to conduct fair research. Not only that, many would rather stick to their own set of beliefs.
Finding someone trustworthy
Due to the sheer volume of information that is relevant to any given social issue, people have developed psychological shortcuts — or heuristics — to point them in the right direction. These shortcuts have little to do with evidence and much more to do with evaluating who we can trust.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the extent to which we find a person trustworthy is calibrated according to our social communities. We naturally associate with people who share our values: psychological processes encourage us to acquire values from our communities, and we tend to seek out like-minded individuals.
Our social communities radically determine who we see as trustworthy. Our social groups determine our political attitudes, obscure which evidence will count as meaningful and moderate the extent to which most people evaluate how their beliefs correspond to what experts say.
The people already in our communities will appear to be the most knowledgeable — even if they have no expertise or understanding and even when they are perpetuating false beliefs.
While it might seem like accurate beliefs are easily acquired, people are not quite so adept when it comes to determining what is true, nor are they equipped to determine who the appropriate experts are.
Problematic beliefs persist because our psychological and social circumstances don’t situate us appropriately to evaluate issues. This is partly why reasoning alone won’t change people’s minds.
Problematic beliefs are so appealing, then, because they’re easy.
From the perspective of a person living in a community committed to socially problematic beliefs, there is almost always more “trustworthy evidence” from someone they know.
Instead of complacent acceptance of misinformed beliefs, we need institutional moves to cultivate trust between experts and the public.
Perhaps more importantly, we need to cultivate a shared commitment to recognizing the humanity in others. Arriving at a problematic belief is easy, but building a better world requires authentic relationships and coalitions across community lines.
Lara Millman receives funding from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.