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Why False Beliefs Stick

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Science explains why people cling to ideas, even when they have contradictory evidence.

How is it that in 2018, a person could possibly believe that Earth is flat? And how could a whole Flat Earth Society exist where multiple members hold beliefs such as that NASA is a conspiracy and gravity but a mere illusion? According to research from the University of California at Berkeley, it’s feedback, rather than facts, that boost people’s sense of certainty. That’s why expanding someone’s worldview on climate change is so hard, or how impossible it is trying to get a “birther” to see the error of his ways.

The UC Berkeley findings were published in the journal Open Mind and shed light onto the learning process and how our beliefs are formed. The study itself was conducted among 500 adults, recruited online via a crowdsourcing platform. Study participants were asked to identify what combos of colored shapes on their computer screens made up an imaginary object the researchers called a “Daxxy.” The participants had no idea what a Daxxy was, but guessed which of the shapes might make up the thing, and got feedback if they were right or wrong. They were asked each time, how certain they were of their answer. Participants, it seemed, based their certainty on what a Daxxy was based on the last four to five guesses, rather than relying on a summation of all the information they had gotten during the process. “They could get the first 19 guesses in a row wrong, but if they got the last five right, they felt very confident,” wrote the study’s lead author, a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley named Louis Marti.

How does this relate to learning? “If you use a crazy theory to make a correct prediction a couple of times, you can get stuck in that belief and may not be as interested in gathering more information,” added study senior author Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. This type of thinking can limit intellectual horizons, the researchers note. “If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know,” wrote Marti in the study. It can also leave people easily duped by con artists.

To learn in a more effective way, the researchers suggest, use all of the data at hand, rather than simply the most recent feedback. Sounds like excellent advice, especially these days.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Savannah. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!.


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