Mmost people think they learn their beliefs using a high level of objectivity.
But recent arguments between people over issues like trans rights, vaccinations or Roe vs. Wade point to another reality.
Consider the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade. There is plenty of evidence to show that widely accessible abortions lead to safer outcomes for children and people who can get pregnant. Moreover, the data suggests abortion bans are ineffective, harmful and dangerous. Engagement in life should therefore favor comprehensive health care for those who can become pregnant – including abortions. There seems to be a disconnect: people don’t have fact-based arguments.
The world is hyperspecialized
There’s a reason facts quickly get lost in contentious arguments: individuals lack the resources to deeply understand complex social issues. This is partly because the world we live in is hyperspecialized. This means that all reliable information is produced through large interconnected fields of study. Humans have divided cognitive work so we we can know much more collectively than we can individually.
For example, the structural integrity of a bridge or the inner workings of a cell phone are things that the collective “we” understand better together.
But this characteristic of human knowledge is our downfall when it comes to the persistence of socially erroneous beliefs.
When arguing about social issues between people with different opinions, one person often ends up insisting that if the other was only rational and could see the evidence, he would change his mind.
Socially problematic or false beliefs include things like racist, homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic ideas. These ideas can lead to significant negative social consequences, especially for people from marginalized communities.
False beliefs are pervasive in part because of the collective nature of human knowledge. As individuals, we cannot assess all problems, as they require specialized knowledge. And while some may say “do your own research,” individuals don’t necessarily have access to the best avenues for conducting fair research. Not only that, many prefer to stick to their own beliefs.
Find someone you trust
Due to the sheer volume of information relevant to a given social issue, people have developed psychological – or heuristic – shortcuts to point them in the right direction. These shortcuts have little to do with evidence and much more with evaluation who we can trust.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the extent to which we find someone trustworthy is calibrated to our social communities. We naturally associate with people who share our values: psychological processes encourage us to acquire values from our communitiesand we tend to look for like-minded people.
Our social communities radically determine who we consider trustworthy. Our social groups determine our political attitudes, obscure evidence that will count as significant and moderate the extent to which most people rate how their beliefs match what experts say.
People already in our communities will come across as the best informed – even if they have no expertise or understanding and even when they perpetuate false beliefs.
Although it may seem that correct beliefs are easily acquired, people are not as adept at determining what is true, nor are they equipped to determine who the appropriate experts are.
Problematic beliefs persist because our psychological and social circumstances do not position us appropriately to assess problems. This is partly why reasoning alone won’t change people’s minds.
Problematic beliefs are so attractive, then, because they are easy.
From the perspective of someone living in a community held to socially problematic beliefs, there is almost always more “trustworthy evidence” from someone they know.
Instead of complacently accepting erroneous beliefs, we need institutional measures to cultivate trust between experts and the public.
Perhaps most importantly, we must cultivate a shared commitment to recognizing the humanity in others. Arriving at a problematic belief is easy, but building a better world requires authentic relationships and coalitions across community lines.
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