Monday, September 25

Post-truth was not such a big deal: people do change their minds when presented with facts

How much is an argument worth? What weight does a well-assembled, robust reasoning have that is rooted in true and demonstrable facts? Is it more persuasive by appealing to the brain or the heart, if not the guts? The question is as old as the very concept of society, and in its own way they were already thinking about it back there, millennia ago, in classical Greece; but in times of post-truth and fake news in which creating hoaxes is easier than ever, the issue is, if possible, more urgent.

The underlying doubt points to our most intimate nature, as individuals and as social beings. Are we willing to rethink our opinions? And what does it take for that to happen? On the Soc Done Left account they just break down studies that shed light on the subject.

A question of post-truth… To begin with, it does not hurt to refresh concepts. Like the post-truth. The RAE defines it as the “deliberate distortion of a reality, which manipulates beliefs and emotions in order to influence public opinion and social attitudes”. His political reading is clear: sensations are better than reasons, better for something to appear to be true than the fact that it really is or not. The key is in the constant reaffirmation of one’s own ideas.

…and square heads. Seen this way, on paper, the concept seems almost counterintuitive; but there are studies that show to what extent we assume it. More than a decade ago, for example, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler verified something curious: the “counterproductive effect” that information can generate, how more data does not always equal less ignorance.

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During their experiment Nyhan and Reifler did something simple: they gave conservative citizens information about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What happened? Well, when confronted with data, the test subjects not only stood their ground, but became even more convinced that such weapons had been found. Something that should have dismantled an opinion served—surprise!—for the opposite: to reinforce it.

Are we really that immovable? Maybe yes. Or maybe not. Compared to Byhan and Reifler’s experience, there are others that point in quite a different direction and suggest that our brains would be much more spongy and permeable to new ideas. In 2019, other researchers, Thomas Wood and Ethan Porter, worked with 10,100 people and 52 problems with which they wanted to see if the “backfire” of the arguments was really so powerful. They got a shock.

People didn’t seem to be as closed-headed as the 2010 study on Iraq’s weapons indicated. “The evidence that the facts are counterproductive turns out to be much weaker than previous research suggests. In general, citizens pay attention to objective information, even when said information challenges their ideological commitments”, ditch.

It’s not so easy to deny the evidence. “Overwhelmingly, when objective information is presented that corrects politicians, even when they are an ally, the average subject accepts the correction and distances himself from the inaccurate statement”, Wood and Porter abound.

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And this is so for a very simple reason: in general, we are lazy to turn our heads, “cognitive effort”, as the researchers themselves define it, and put together new arguments that reaffirm our beliefs and allow us to respond to the information that makes them reel is not easy. In the end it is much easier to simply filter the information.

Not so comfortable either. “In approximately nine out of ten questions, objective information significantly improves the accuracy of the average respondent,” they conclude. For the team, the previous studies that showed the “backlash” effect of information can be explained by a characteristic that speaks more of its methodology than of us as people. The analysis was often made using university students, people a priori more given to “cognitive effort”.

Of course, it is one thing to be willing to listen and quite another to retain the information. How long are these new ideas that question their own preserved?… That is another matter.

How much do influencers influence? Another interesting question is to what extent the leaders’ discourse influences our opinion. The USA and Donald Trump’s accusations in 2021 about alleged electoral fraud leave a good example. What impact does the former president’s speech have even when there are reports from his party against him? To answer the question, it is useful to recover Ben Tappin’s research on the extent to which a political leader can undermine evidence.

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your conclusion after analyzing 24 topics on politics and almost fifty news treatments, it is curious to say the least: “in the absence of clues from the leader, exposure to the news treatment had the expected average effect (negative) on opinions. Surprisingly, in the face of a compensatory signal from the party leader, the average effect of the information did not change.

When it doesn’t come with being the leader. “We did not see any evidence that counterarguments, elicited by the party leader’s signal, undermined the persuasive effect of arguments and evidence on average. This result held across political issues, demographic subgroups, and signal environments from one side to the other.” tappin abounds.

By way of conclusion, he points out that this type of voice, by itself, is not as effective in persuading without additional help. “This may be why the partisan media provides a constant stream of talking points and counter-arguments,” ditch. In other words: to underpin the discourse of the leaders they are key the support of the elites and partisan media.

Cover Image | Jon Tyson (Unsplash)

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