Pragma Synesi – interesting bits

Compendium of interesting bits I come across, with an occasional IMHO

Why People Can’t Agree on Basic Facts

Two related articles on how people end up with such divergent views from the same set of facts, and how the gap between the two sides keeps getting larger.

Why People Can’t Agree on Basic Facts

Tali Sharot | September 19, 2017 | Time Magazine

Your brain is programmed to get a kick out of information. This makes our current digital era a celebration for your mind. While the agricultural age gave us easier access to nutrition, and the industrial age dramatically increased our quality of life, no other era has provided so much stimulation for our brains as the information age. It is as if, finally, our brain has succeeded in building its own amusement park that is perfectly customized for itself.

Consider the numbers: every day we produce approximately 2.5 billion gigabytes of data and perform 4 billion Google searches. In the short time it took you to read the last sentence, approximately 530,243 new ones were executed.

It would seem that the digital revolution should come in handy when trying to alter people’s minds. If people love information, what better way to influence their beliefs than to offer data? Yet, a puzzling phenomenon emerged with the rise of the digital age. As information about the world became readily accessible, people were still inclined to argue about the facts. For example, despite photographic documentation of the 2017 presidential inauguration, many disagree about the number of people who attended the event; and in the face of a publicly available birth certificate of the 44th President of the United States, there are diverse opinions regarding his birthplace.

When debating, our instinct is to burst in with ammunition in the form of facts and figures that support our view. But what actually determines whether someone will be persuaded by our argument or whether we will be ignored?

In the last few years, my colleagues and I collected data to address this question. We produced hundreds of folders with thousands of files containing rows and rows of numbers. Each number represented an observation: a person’s response to a decision problem or their reaction to another human; other numbers quantified activity in a person’s brain or the density of their neuronal fibers. We were somewhat surprised when those numbers pointed to the conclusion that in order to assess data and decide what is true the brain relies heavily on its emotional system.

In one study, for example, my colleague Micha Edelson and I, together with others, recorded people’s brain activity while we exposed them to misinformation. A week later we invited everyone back to our lab and told them that the information we gave them before was randomly generated. About half the time our volunteers were able to correct the false beliefs we induced in them, but about half the time they continued believing misinformation. What predicted whether false beliefs would be resistant to change?

A small structure deep in the brain, about the size of a cherry tomato, provided some clues. This structure is called the amygdala and it is important for producing emotional arousal. We found that if the amygdala was activated when people were first exposed to misinformation, it was less likely we would be able to correct their judgments later. A series of follow-up studies confirmed that emotion had a strong influence on how people processed information, sometimes in unexpected ways. We found, for instance, that good news was more likely to impact people’s beliefs than bad news. But that under stress, negative information, such as learning about unexpectedly high rates of disease and violent acts, is more likely to alter people’s beliefs.

In light of all this, it may be disturbing to learn that another group of researchers observed that one of the most emotionally arousing activity people engage in on most days is tweeting. Turns out tweeting brings your pulse up, makes you sweat and enlarges your pupils — all indicators of emotional arousal. Reading your feed alone increases arousal by 65%. Twitter is perfectly designed to engage our emotions because its features naturally call on our affective system; messages are fast, short and transferred within a social context.

What this means is that information on Twitter (and other social platforms that use short and fast messages) is particularly likely to be evaluated based on emotional responses with little input from higher cognitive functions. It is good practice, then, to slow down when using such platforms and to consciously reflect on our reactions. Science has shown that waiting just a couple of minutes before making judgments reduces the likelihood that they will be based solely on instinct.

At a time when information is easily obtained and data is abundant, it is important to be acutely aware that it is people’s feelings, hopes and fears that play a central role in whether a piece of evidence will influence their beliefs. It is those aspects of human nature that our message needs to address to make a change in others — or in ourselves.


Why Facts Don’t Unify Us

Tali Sharot and Cass R. Sunstein | Sept. 2, 2016 | The New York Times

According to the Pew Research Center, the nation is more polarized than at any time in recent history. While some of the issues dividing us boil down to ideology and preference, there is at least one on which hard science should have a strong say — climate change. But do numbers and figures change people’s opinions?

Apparently, they do — they result in a deeper divide.

In a recent experiment, described in a paper released on Friday on the Social Science Research Network, we and our colleagues Sebastian Bobadilla-Suarez and Stephanie Lazzaro asked more than 300 Americans several climate-related questions, such as whether they believed that man-made climate change was occurring and whether the United States was right to support the recent Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the basis of their answers, we divided participants into three groups: strong believers in man-made climate change, moderate believers and weak believers.

Next we informed participants that many scientists have said that by the year 2100, the average temperature in the United States will rise at least 6 degrees Fahrenheit, and asked them for their own estimates of likely temperature rise by 2100.

The overall average was 5.6 degrees Fahrenheit. As expected, there were significant differences among the three groups: 6.3 degrees for strong believers in man-made climate change, 5.9 degrees for moderate believers and 3.6 degrees for weak believers.

Then came the important part of the experiment. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. Half of them received information that was more encouraging than what they originally received (good news for the planet and humanity); half of them received information that was less encouraging (bad news for the planet and humanity). In the good news condition, they were told to assume that in recent weeks, prominent scientists had reassessed the science and concluded the situation was far better than previously thought, suggesting a likely temperature increase of only 1 to 5 degrees.

In the bad news condition, participants were told to assume that in recent weeks, prominent scientists had reassessed the science and concluded the situation was far worse than previously thought, suggesting a likely temperature increase of 7 to 11 degreesAll participants were then asked to provide their personal estimates.

Weak believers in man-made climate change were moved by the good news (their average estimate fell by about 1 degree), but their belief was unchanged by the bad news (their average estimate stayed essentially constant).

By contrast, strong believers in man-made climate change were far more moved by the bad news (their average estimate jumped by nearly 2 degrees), whereas with good news, it fell by less than half of that (.9 degrees). Moderate climate change believers were equally moved in both cases (they changed their estimates by approximately 1.5 degrees in each case).

The clear implication is that for weak believers in man-made climate change, comforting news will have a big impact, and alarming news won’t. Strong believers will show the opposite pattern. And because Americans are frequently exposed to competing claims about the latest scientific evidence, these opposing tendencies will predictably create political polarization — and it will grow over time.

In the case of information about ourselves — about how attractive others perceive us to be, or how likely we are to succeed — people normally alter their beliefs more in response to good news. In certain circumstances, that will also be true for political issues — as in the case of weak climate change believers. But at times, good political news can threaten our deepest commitments, and we will give it less weight.

These findings help explain polarization on many issues. With respect to the Affordable Care Act, for example, people encounter good news, to the effect that it has helped millions of people obtain health insurance, and also bad news, to the effect that health care costs and insurance premiums continue to increase. For the act’s supporters, the good news will have far more impact than the bad; for the opponents, the opposite is true. As the sheer volume of information increases, polarization will be heightened as well.

Essentially the same tale can be told with respect to immigration, terrorism, increases in the minimum wage — and candidates for the highest office in the land. Voters are now receiving a steady stream of both positive and negative information about Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump. Which kind of news will have a large impact will depend partly on people’s motivations and initial convictions.

But there’s an important qualification. In our experiment, a strong majority showed movement; few people were impervious to new information. Most people were willing to change their views, at least to some extent.

For those who believe in learning, and the possibility of democratic self-government, that’s very good news.

September 19, 2017 - Posted by | behaviour, brain, decision making, emotions, information, psychology | , ,

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