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Monday, March 06, 2017

Free Will, Erroneousity, and the Problem With the Backfire Effect

Is this phenomenon common only to conservatives and Christians?


Someone posted a link to a podcast about research which shows that when a strong-yet-erroneous belief is challenged, most people may experience a weakening of your convictions, but most people quickly rebound, reassert their original belief and dig in their heels. Note here that this starts out with an assumption we cannot be certain is true of false. The point of all this seemed to have been to prove why conservatives won't change their minds when liberals tell them the "truth". This is supposed to be a common weakness not shared by great minds (i.e. people who supported Hillary Clinton) who always go with the truth come what may.

This research only stiffened my belief that B.F. Skinner was entirely full of horse crap. This is not inevitably true. I believe the research suffers from the same problem it tries to identify. Skinner was a famous psychologist who put forward the belief that free choice is an illusion and that we are all preprogrammed by our external experiences. Skinner also thinks believing in God is a delusion.

I'm not here to argue about God. I'm here to challenge the humans-as-robots idea. As anyone who reads my stuff knows, I believe that people have free choices. We can, as it were, overcome out programming. Not that we aren't programmed to some extent. It would be exhausting to have to go through the choice process about every little thing. Most of our lives we go through our days on auto-pilot. It's the way our brain learns to cope with the complex series of decisions we have to make and it is the way we learn any skill, idea, or ability.

All sights, sounds, and senses pass through our brains to through the amygdala, a series of structures in the brain that process input and decide what to do with it. It works like this for something like swinging a baseball bat and hitting a ball:
  1. We swing at a pitched ball the first time and decide second by second throughout the pitch where to direct the bat, how hard to swing and where we want it to go. Usually we miss or, if we are lucky, we foul the ball into the stands. 
  2. We repeat the action again and again. At first the amygdala sends the visual and sound cues to the frontal lobes where we think and decide what we believe about what we are seeing and hearing. Then the frontal lobes send instruction to the brain stem telling it what to do with our muscles in order to direct the bat into the ball and hit it.
  3. The more we repeat this action, the more ingrained the action becomes and the less the forebrain has to think about it. Soon the amygdala lays down strong neuron pathways that go straight to the brain stem with instructions the forebrain has sent time and again. Once these pathways are established we swing a bat almost without thinking, the forebrain only needing to make minor adjustments in the swing to control your aim.
This is how we learn behaviors, attitudes and physical responses. I experienced this at camp. I saw enough copperhead snakes that I could pick them out of the leaves almost without realizing it. I've jumped up in the air and out of the way, almost before I realized why I was jumping. My amygdala had recognized the snake pattern and instructed my feet to not fail me now. It is also how we develop automatic reactions to ideas and beliefs.

It is true that attacking someone's firmly held beliefs often only strengthen that belief, accounting for this so-called backfire effect. Believe it or not, this is a good thing and does not represent some sort of willful resistance to new information. This stiffening of belief comes because we have over the course of our lives, consciously or unconsciously chosen the beliefs we hold. Sometimes this is because we wish to be part of the herd, but that is less the case than liberal propagandists suppose.

Often our beliefs and our ingrained defensiveness with regard to them are the result of careful choices over long periods of time. People who never consciously choose do not develop such beliefs and become easily influenced by the herd of people they want to belong to. Their beliefs depend on feelings; not so much on rational consideration.  But a conscious resistance to information that sounds not right, is not of the herd beast thought process. It can also be the product of a series of decisions made calmly and rationally and as the result of much reading, study and research.

So, if it smells like horse poop and looks like horse poop, it's probably some kind of horse poop! If we weren't able to do that on auto-pilot, we'd have a very very difficult time crossing a horse pasture without tripping over a steaming pile of the aforementioned equine waste product.

Don't get me wrong for minds can be changed by argument. It's easier and happens more often than Mr. Skinner would have you believe. My three favorite conservative pundits, for instance, all were big time liberals when they were coming up through high school and college. But once they hit real life they began seeing evidence that something was amiss. The theories they had accepted from their Marxist university professors were not playing out like they were supposed to in the real world. So they eventually became big time conservatives and reread history.  This happened because they encountered information that challenged their initial fundamental beliefs. It happened enough times that eventually, their brains changed the positive feelings long associated with one set of beliefs and connected them with another set of beliefs, thus making them resistant to the old belief system.

The same thing happened with my religious convictions. I went from being a militant agnostic to being a firm Christian over a period of about two years.  It happened with me resisting the change most of the way. You do not convince another that you are right and they are wrong by pounding them with facts. This only stiffens the resistance of the person to changing their beliefs.

If you want to encourage a person to change, you, instead, present them with hard questions that force them to think. Such questions create a cognitive dissonance that forces their amygdala to route the problem to the thinking part of their brains. If you can get a person to think, to examine their beliefs, you can shake them out of their emotional comfort zone and place them on the path to what Thomas Kuhn called a "paradigm shift".  This shift of strongly held beliefs (the kind that resist change) to a new set of cherished beliefs happens, not as a result of a single salvo of facts, but as a result of questions raised by a series of data which do not fit the old paradigm.

Now many people will never change for a variety of reasons. They may not wish to leave their personal herd. They may fear losing their job, position in society or the affection of family should they accept the implications of the problem posed by all this new and conflicting data they are seeing. But every person, confronted by such a conundrum, has to make a decision. Even the decision not to decide and put it all out of their head is a decision.

So the backfire effect doesn't much help the propagandists of the left, especially if challenging a set of beliefs leads the holders of those beliefs to do a little research of their own into the "facts" presented. Such an investigation may actually cause more damage to the would-be persuader's case than to the belief set of the targeted person.

Conservatives appear to be pretty tough nuts to crack in that respect, much to the chagrin of Democrat political consultants. This would make sense given that so many are Christians and the Christian beliefs system was created by someone who knew an awful lot about how the human mind works and how to train it. Jesus said, "The Truth shall make you free."  It actually does. It frees you to do what you really want and from the kind of conditioned responses B.F. Skinner thought were the only thing influencing the behaviors of all people. I have found that the life with Christ trains the mind to choose what it chooses in principal and not by blind emotional response.

As it turns out, the Truth really does set you free!

© 2017 by Tom King

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