People often hold on to their beliefs, despite evidence to the contrary. Someone once even said to me ‘don’t confuse me with facts.’ Beliefs trump facts.
A man is convinced he’s dead. No one can convince him otherwise. A doctor decides the best strategy for curing the man is to have him accept that dead men don’t bleed.
Over 6 months, the man studies medical textbooks and anatomy charts. The man observes autopsies, dissects cadavers, and works as an assistant in a funeral home. Finally, the man exclaims, “Enough already. I get it: Dead men do not bleed.”
The doctor smiles and pricks the man’s finger with a needle. The man looks at his finger with a drop of blood oozing out and says, “Well, what do you know! Dead men do bleed!”
On the surface, it seems ridiculous someone would cling to a belief in the face of incontrovertible evidence. And yet, we see this play out on social media every day. Confirmation bias is so strong that people are convinced facts are nothing more than an alternative opinion.
In fact, trying to convince someone can have the opposite effect. A 2006 research study demonstrated so-called ‘backfire effect’ in which repeated corrections to a firmly-held belief only increased misperceptions. Subjects were given two newspaper articles; one of which contained obviously incorrect information which supported their belief and the other presented accurate information which contradicted their belief. Rather than changing their minds, a majority of the subjects decided the second article was false and, in some cases, claimed a ‘conspiracy behind the correction.’
Can you convince someone to change a firmly held belief? Maybe.
While there are many reliable techniques to make sure you have an open mind, it’s much more difficult to apply these techniques to others. The key seems to be to avoid simply asking why someone believes something and instead ask them to explain how the belief applies to a specific situation. If they can’t explain it simply or if there are gaps in their explanation, they might become more open to alternative ideas. This is a variant of the Feynman Learning Technique.
When someone acts like they are saying ‘don’t confuse me with facts,’ you shouldn’t try harder to convince them. They’ll just dig in. Instead, ask them to explain how their belief applies in a real-world situation. If you’re lucky, it will change their mind.