Spirituality & Health Magazine

2011 March-April

Why We Can Be Dogmatically Against Things We Know Nothing About

As philosopher John Locke observed: “New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”

So, what limits our desire and capacity to take in new ideas, even when we hold an intention to transform and to grow? What are the barriers to changing our minds and behaviors? How can we develop habits that allow us to explore our own biases? How can we learn to recognize our own intolerance of ideas that refute our prevailing beliefs and opinions?

These are tricky questions, but new discoveries in neuroscience, social psychology, and anthropology offer provocative insights into the barriers to transformation. They show us that our views of reality are embedded largely in our unconscious mind. Operating below the threshold of our conscious awareness, our beliefs and assumptions shape our experience, even while we’re busy making other plans.

Research from the Cultural Cognition Project (CCP), a Yale Law School initiative, found, for example, that policy and public perceptions, such as those around climate change or nanotechnology, are shaped by cultural beliefs more than scientific data.

In one experiment, Don Braman and his colleagues at CCP divided people into two cultural values-based groups: “individualistic” and “communitarian.” The research team presented both groups with identical information on nanotechnology, something the participants knew little about. According to Braman, the facts that people were presented with — negative or positive — did not impact their impressions of nanotechnology. Instead, both groups recalled data that supported their preexisting values and rejected information that didn’t; unsurprisingly, we all learn to maintain our existing models of reality.

Another study helps understand why this is so. Kevin Dunbar and Jonathan Fugelsang, researchers from Dartmouth College, have discovered that a resistance to new information may actually be hardwired into our brains. When confronted with dissonant data — that which contradicts what we expect to see — even trained scientists appear to reject contradictory information that goes against their assumptions about how the world works.

Using the sophisticated brain mapping tools of an fMRI, the scientists discovered that the brain triggers activity in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), the section largely associated with the perception of contradictions and errors. This process is important for editing out false information but can also inhibit the ability to retain correct information that goes against a group of scientists’ prevailing scientific assumptions. At the same time, another portion of their brains, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), suppresses unwanted information that doesn’t jibe with the scientists’ preexisting theories. When triggered, this area of the brain can actually cause individuals to delete the contradictory information from their awareness.

This can be a serious problem for scientists who are charged with the discovery of new knowledge about life. It is also a problem for the rest of us who seek to expand our horizons or maintain an open mind. These experiments reveal a truth about human nature: belief blinds us to alternative points of view and can even lead to dogmatic assertions about things we know nothing about. The data calls for humility to question our deepest assumptions. As James Michener remarked: “An age is called dark, not because the light fails to shine but because people refuse to see it.”