You Can’t Handle the Truth


Disagreement, especially the political kind, proves to be less about values than about the veracity of facts.

Rather than accommodating our way of thinking to the discovery of new information, we have a tendency to cling even further to those old beliefs, in light of that new and potentially contradictory information.

Confirmation Bias
I have previously described the psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias— psychologically, we favor information that confirms what we already believe. Any data contrary to those beliefs will be disregarded or labeled false.

Confirmation bias is responsible for those filter bubbles, the places we have, especially online, that reaffirm our beliefs. It is easier to remain unchallenged if we surround ourselves only with people who share in those same beliefs.

However, new research shows that there may be something else at work other than confirmation bias. If confirmation bias were the only cause of polarization, then all we would have to do to remove confirmation bias is to stay open to facts and information that challenges our deeply-held notions of the way things should be, the way things work.

Desirability Bias
The new study by Ben Tappin, Leslie Van der Leer, and Ryan McCay show signs of a “desirability bias” people have for information collection. An easy way to think of it is telling people what they want to hear and have them believing it because they want it to be true. This behavior is separate from believing something to be true.

The study consisted of polling 900 voters a month before the election. Half were supporters of Hillary Clinton and half supported Donald Trump. The survey asked both which candidate the voters supported and which one they thought would actually win. About half of the people polled thought that the candidate they supported wasn’t likely to win, which was true for each candidate. This meant that these voters were able to separate their desires from their beliefs.

The research took a turn, however, when presented with new polling results. For the voters presented with favorable results for their desired candidate, they suddenly merged that new information into their beliefs, and overwhelmingly believed their candidate would now win.

However, the voters who received unfavorable evidence about their candidate barely changed their beliefs on whether that candidate would go on to win. What this means for researchers was a bias toward desirable information. The voters wanted the information to be true, and so they incorporated that new “evidence” into their beliefs, modifying their beliefs to fit their desires.

What This Means for Creating a Consensus
It’s difficult to say how much further opposing viewpoints will become entrenched. If political polarization is grounded in conflicting desires rather than conflicting beliefs, then it will be difficult to bridge that divide.

We are often threatened by change, especially when we perceive change as a threat to our way of life or a personal attack on our lifestyle. Therefore, a different way of thinking has to emerge, but in this current psychological system, that change cannot be imposed by an outside source—we must want that change for ourselves. Personal attacks may only serve to make us cling to want we want to believe.

Perhaps the real work will be not only to create exposure to a variety of viewpoints and facts but to appeal to the emotional, human side, in order to create the desire to at least be open to new information. Because if facts continue to become enmeshed with emotions, then the power of anything like an objective fact may otherwise become irrelevant, making common, neutral ground nearly impossible.