People do not go out of their way to seek data that contradicts their existing beliefs. On the contrary, they will select any data they find that supports existing assumptions. We may like to believe that we are open to having our minds changed, but the reality is that we are quite fixed when it comes to our mental malleability.
Evidence for this assertion is being played out daily on our radios and televisions, as people debate the pros and cons of Brexit. There is an uncanny collective agreement amongst the public that they do not get enough facts to help them arrive at a logical and balanced position. We hear this refrain in panel discussions, question time and vox pops. “How are we supposed to know what the truth is? One lot give us a load of statistics, and then the other lot come along and tell us that is all wrong and hit us with another load of statistics.”
I watched one such programme recently, where a member of the public made exactly this
point. He levelled his accusation at one of the ‘experts’ on the panel. His complaint centred around the costs of running the EU along with an assertion that Britain should not be run by unelected bureaucrats. The expert spent a reasonable amount of time patiently explaining the facts. He explained that calling all of the EU machine unelected was not accurate. He pointed out that the EU Parliament, which is made up of elected national representatives, does in fact have a veto over recommendations put forward by the EU Commission. And that the EU Council is also made up of one member from each state in the EU, each of whom will have been elected as part of their home nation’s general elections. This was all delivered in a tone of neutrality, and with a genuine desire to help alleviate concerns and misunderstandings. At the end, the person who had raised the original issue was asked if the information provided had helped. His response was not positive. Exasperated, he accused the ‘expert’ of simply adding to the confusion and misconceptions, and “just who was he supposed to believe?”
I suspect the data provided did not fit with this person’s existing world view, and the reality, in the midst of all the heat being generated in the run up to the referendum, is that few people are genuinely ready and open to having their minds changed. Many keep up the charade of being open (after all, admitting to being close-minded is not socially attractive). Creating a smoke-screen of ‘confusion and misconception’ allows many to pretend they genuinely want facts to help them make up their mind, while the facts that they jump on are those that either support their dominant view or provide ammunition to kill off opposing arguments.
Perhaps none of this should come as any major surprise to us. It is after all a well-documented trait of human nature, referred to by scientists as ‘Confirmation Bias’. Coaches and other ‘talking therapy’ professionals spend a great deal of time helping clients explore beliefs, assumptions and engrained thought processes. Creativity, learning and change is predicated on a willingness to explore, to discover and to ‘unlearn’. To free oneself from the chains of closed-loop thinking.
What does it take for adults to embrace new information such that it causes them to actually change? It requires insight, personal discovery, internalised commitment (or buy-in) and a disturbance of the comfort associated with their ‘status quo’. I am not hopeful that the quality of debate we are likely to hear in the next six weeks will create enough of these conditions to cause mass change of mind in the population. Instead, we will have to suffer the collusion of an electorate claiming to be ‘hungry for the truth’ and politicians, business people and pundits being only too willing to provide it.