The Sunday Review section of the New York Times had another interesting article on cognitive biases in its May 27, 2017 edition entitled “You’re Not Going to Change Your Mind” By Ben Tappin, Leslie Van Der Leer and Ryan McKay.

Using the present political climate as a beginning point, the authors note that many of our disagreements are based not on our values but on facts. (“alternative facts”?) Consequently, the way to change our minds is to be given empirical data that counter our “alternative facts.”

While this should work, it doesn’t always. Why? The authors note that we all have a confirmation bias: “…the psychological tendency to favor information that confirms our beliefs and to disfavor information that counters them….” (Id.)

But, even if we are aware that we have this bias and try to counteract it, we still may not change our minds based on the “alternative facts”. Why? There seems to be another bias at work; the desirability bias, rooted in “telling people what they want to hear”. It is “… the tendency to credit information you want to believe. (Id.) In other words, the confirmation bias (the tendency to actually believe what you believe) is often conflated with the desirability bias (the tendency to believe what you want to believe). (Id.)

To show that this desirability bias actually exists, the authors conducted an experiment one month before the 2016 presidential election. They asked approximately 900 United States residents, which candidate they wanted to win and which candidate they believed was most likely to win:

…Respondents fell into two groups. In one group were those who believed the candidate they wanted to win was also most likely to win (for example, the Clinton supporter who believed Mrs. Clinton would win). In the other group were those who believed the candidate they wanted to win was not the candidate most likely to win (for example, the Trump supporter who believed Mrs. Clinton would win). Each person in the study then read about recent polling results emphasizing either that Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump was more likely to win.

Roughly half of our participants believed their preferred candidate was the one less likely to win the election. For those people, the desirability of the polling evidence was decoupled from its value in confirming their beliefs.

After reading about the recent polling numbers, all the participants once again indicated which candidate they believed was most likely to win. The results, which we report in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, were clear and robust. Those people who received desirable evidence — polls suggesting that their preferred candidate was going to win — took note and incorporated the information into their subsequent belief about which candidate was most likely to win the election. In contrast, those people who received undesirable evidence barely changed their belief about which candidate was most likely to win.

Importantly, this bias in favor of the desirable evidence emerged irrespective of whether the polls confirmed or disconfirmed peoples’ prior belief about which candidate would win. In other words, we observed a general bias toward the desirable evidence. (Id.)

With respect to the confirmation bias, the authors found that the evidence- either for or against a participant’s candidate- made no difference. They showed no confirmation bias. (Id.)

Based on this experiment, the researchers suggest that our adamant political views may be based on what we want to believe, i.e. our desires- rather than on what we actually believe. Thus, they conclude that providing all of the most accurate information possible, or even various versions of “alternative facts” will not make a difference; such efforts will not change our minds one iota. Because we will insist on believing what we want to believe discounting the information that confirms what we do believe!

The application of this research to resolving disputes and to mediations is mind boggling; why engage in “alternative facts” if we are all stuck in our alternative realities of what we want to believe! I have always thought that litigation is about resolving differing perceptions of reality. I guess this desirability bias only confirms that! (pun intended!)

… Just something to think about.


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