Have you ever noticed that when you talked to a committed Republican or Democrat, how equally convinced they are that the evidence or facts on the issue overwhelmingly supports their position?
Have you noticed how each side dismisses contradictory evidence, or if they do acknowledge it, tend to reinterpret it so it confirms their existing beliefs?
Cognitive scientists and psychologists have identified a number of psychological biases that cause us to distort evidence so it fits in with our existing preconceived beliefs.
Psychologist Michael Shermer, in his book The Believing Brain argues that the mother of all biases is the “Confirmation Bias”.
Shermer defines Confirmation Bias as “the tendency to seek and find confirming evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence.”
Prior to the 2004 presidential election, Drew Westen at Emory University was able to test the confirmation bias brainscanning thirty men - half “strong” Republicans and half “strong” Democrats. The fMRI scan showed what parts of the brain lit up when the participants heard contradictory statements from George W. Bush and John Kerry.
The part of the brain associated with reasoning remained remarkably quiet. The part of the brain associated with the processing of emotions and conflict resolution were much more active.
Once subjects arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable, they rationalised away the parts that did not fit in with their preconceived beliefs. When we do this, our brains reward us with a neurochemical hit, probably dopamine.
If our brains are wired to convince us that we are always right, then does this mean you can’t change minds? No, it doesn’t. If humans didn’t also have neural mechanisms to recognise and adopt new ideas we would never have become an IPAD-infested world.
In future blogs, I will discuss how gifted persuaders take advantage of the neural mechanism to change hearts and minds.
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