There are sizeable numbers of people who hold to beliefs that run counter to overwhelming contrary evidence. Flat Earthers and Holocaust deniers are well-known examples and, more recently, people – some of them in high places – who reject the evidence for climate change.
New research published in the journal Open Mind by developmental psychologists at UC Berkeley suggest that feedback, rather than hard evidence, boosts people’s sense of certainty when learning new things or trying to tell right from wrong. People’s beliefs are more likely to be reinforced by the positive or negative reactions they are exposed to than by logic, reasoning, and scientific data.
People’s learning habits can limit one’s intellectual horizons. According to the study, 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.
This phenomenon plays out in social media and cable-news echo chambers and explains how some people are easily duped by charlatans. Receiving positive feedback for what they are saying can make people believe they know more than they actually do. This confidence makes them less likely to seek out and learn more information about the subject, as well as take into account contradicting opinions or facts.
Another factor is that what influences people’s certainty is that their confidence tends to depend on what they heard most recently rather than on long-term cumulative data. A few pieces of recent information tend to get much more attention than an extensive body of data. If a crazy theory is able to make a correct prediction a few times, people tend to get fixed in their belief in that theory and be less open to other information.
Photo, posted February 2, 2007, courtesy of Tim J. Keegan via Flickr.