Hat tip to a wise friend who recently sent me an article from The Chronicle of Higher Learning entitled “Why Lies Often Stick Better Than Truth.” The thrust of the article has to do with recent psychological research about how people often hold onto slanted information and outright lies—even after being presented with sound counter arguments. It would appear that rejecting previously-believed misinformation involves some hard and undesirable work, which many of us would rather not do. In my context as a minister, the article inspired a brief exchange about why, even when we repeatedly preach salvation by grace through faith, many people still unfortunately hold onto the widespread Pelagian belief that they are going to heaven because they are for the most part good people.
I am primarily interested in what these psychologists recommend as strategies for breaking myths. Of course, this all relates to some topics of interest to the Mockingbird community: communicating with people on non-rational terms for the sake of abreaction. Here are some highlights:
Why do we like our slanted information and outright lies so much? Because rejecting them is hard work, say psychologists in a new article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Making a cognitive shift means rethinking already-held beliefs. It’s much easier to slot evidence into ideas we already hold. … That’s not a new discovery. More interesting, however, are the strategies the psychologists recommend for breaking through the fog of disbelief. You need to find an alternate explanation that fits the same basic facts. … Misinformation persists when “you don’t have an alternative account that works as well as does the wrong one.”
I would add that because the misinformation is typically held at an emotional level, then the alternative account will also need to speak to people viscerally in order to fill that slot. For the most part, this needs to be done via non-rational communication rather than relying upon pure reason and logic—often effectively accomplished through the use of storytelling (see 2 Samuel 12:1-13, for example). In Christian circles, people call this “speaking to the heart” (rather than the mind).
Another interesting point from the article is captured in the following explanation regarding the necessity to avoid repeating misinformation when debunking it, which actually goes against formal principles of argumentation that we are all taught in school—I know, I used to teach college-level composition and rhetoric:
One of the worst ways to offer alternatives, though, is to repeat the bad information while doing so. “There is a risk that repeating an association can make it stronger in memory. … The backfire effect is very common. “In later studies, we tried overemphasizing the fact that the information is wrong.” … But that made people more suspicious of the truth of the information, and didn’t make them any less likely to use it.” … None of this is easy. … If it were, misinformation would diminish and facts would win in the marketplace of ideas.
The strategies mentioned in the Chronicle article are fleshed out in a free PDF download called The Debunking Handbook, which is worth looking into, especially for those trying to communicate important yet counter-intuitive Truths (for example, that we are accounted righteous before God because of Christ’s work and not any work of our own).
As a bonus: The importance of speaking to people on non-rational terms when attempting to change their minds (err hearts) also recently came up for me in a health video from Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat to Live. The full video is below, but only about the first minute and a half are necessary viewing. Here are the important highlights of what he says—note his implicit statements about the bound will!
One thing to remember of course is that taste is a learned phenomenon. And people like what they’re used to eating, and it creates anxiety in people telling them they have to change the way that they eat. We have to recognize this when we’re trying to encourage people to make dietary change in any direction—that people don’t make judgments based on logic and science. They make their decisions based on emotion and what they think is going to make them feel better. Any change in their life creates anxiety for them, and you have to recognize that. And some people have to be met half way, and we have to understand their inability to make change—the factors that are curtailing that.