Progressive Views: Misinformation and Beliefs

by Steven M. Smith, Ph.D.
for the “Progressive Views” column, Boerne Star, August 30, 2019

Escalators in museum surrounded by display with large words: "Belief + Doubt = Sanity", "Believe Anything", "Whose Body?" "Whose Beliefs?"
“Belief+Doubt=Sanity” by F Delventhal is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

The social psychology of false beliefs: why absolute facts are never enough.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot states that “We all have a duty to affect others (positively) from the classroom to the boardroom to social media.” It turns out that many of our (negative) instincts — from relying on facts and figures in order to shape the opinions of others, to insisting others are wrong — are in order to influence and exert control over them. The social dynamics of misaligned beliefs has become an avenue to explain why what you believe depends on who you listen to. Why should we care about true beliefs? Why do demonstrably false beliefs persist and spread despite bad, even fatal consequences for the people who hold them? Why in the face of scientific fact and scholarly research do some choose to believe a lie?

Philosophers of science Cailin O’Connor and James Weatherall argue that social factors are what is essential to understanding the spread and persistence of false beliefs. It might seem that there is an obvious reason that true beliefs matter and the false beliefs will hurt you. But if that is right, then why is it (apparently) irrelevant to many people whether they believe true things or not? An example of an absurdity is the belief that vaccines cause autism. This belief system has persisted even though the facts paint an entirely different story. The scientific research, clinical trials, clinical follow-ups and the absence of any correlation that childhood vaccination contribute in any way to autism spectrum disorder do nothing to quell the myth. People continue to cling to the misinformation as if it were the gospel and in the process have created an epidemic of childhood diseases such as measles, once thought to be eradicated. The question is why? The answers lay in a field of psychology exploring “counterfactuals.”

Counterfactual thinking is a concept that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred—something that is contrary to what actually happened. Counterfactual thinking is, as it states, counter to the facts. O’Conner’s and Weatherall’s book, The Misinformation Age, written for a political era riven by “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and disputes over the validity of everything from climate change to the size of inauguration crowds, shows convincingly that what you believe depends on who you listen to. If social forces explain the persistence of false beliefs then we must understand how those forces work in order to dispel misinformation effectively. However, who you listen to is consequential to the social dynamics of misinformation and counterfactuals. Misinformation, our beliefs and myths are grounded in a triad of socialization, language and social-peer group relationships.

From the earliest age we are shaped by our familial upbringing. For good or bad the parental examples we witness shape our core belief systems. These beliefs may be totally false but are accepted as truths as children have no basis by which to question those beliefs. Language further shapes how we interpret what we hear. This concept of critical interpretation is generational. The response from the adult is often generational as their core beliefs were shaped by their previous generation. These core belief systems are especially entrenched when religious values present themselves. Religion is an excellent segue into the social dynamics of beliefs.

Our belief systems are reinforced by our social structures. For the most part these structures are highly segregated. We worship with people of like-minded religious doctrine. We tend to build friendships with those who share common interests. We live in neighborhoods of those of similar social-economic status. Our self-imposed segregation assists to insulate us from having to encounter those things that may be distasteful or even appalling to our core beliefs. What we accept as “truth” very much depends as to what peer groups shape our thinking and causes one not to question what is said by others. So how does one construct one’s beliefs based upon truth rather than misinformation and counterfactuals?

Every citizen has a moral responsibility to the truth. Everyone has a responsibility to speak the truth and to question what are presented as truths. Are the beliefs of family, friends and peers grounded in fact? If these questions give one pause then there are solutions: become informed, read, think critically, become engaged in dialogue, speak out, write your opinion and vote! Listen to others respectfully yet carefully and always be questioning.

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