Evidence is great at reinforcing our current beliefs. It’s usually lousy, however, at changing our minds. We often think we can change the minds of our opponents by stating the facts. Facts, however, are almost never the bedrock of our beliefs, and better facts are rarely the reason we change our minds.
Evidence is not enough.
In a podcast episode of Hidden Brain called Facts Aren’t Enough, Tali Sharot, author The Influential Mind, talks about “confirmation bias.”
Sharot performed a social experiment where she shared information with two groups of people: those who believed in climate change, and those who didn’t. “[F]or both groups, when the statement confirmed what they already thought, it strengthened their beliefs. But when it challenged their views, they ignored it.”
“Confirmation bias,” Sharot explained, “is our tendency to take in any kind of data that confirms our prior convictions and disregard data that does not conform to what we already believe. And when we see data that doesn’t conform to what we already believe, we try to distance ourselves from it…”
Feelings trump facts.
We all see the world through tinted lenses. While those lenses are partially tinted with biases, they’re also tinted with our experiences and relationships.
In the same episode of Hidden Brain, Cailin O’Connor, author of the book The misinformation Age, said most of our beliefs simply come from the people we choose to trust.
“Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe have no direct evidence of yourself,” O’Connor said. “You have to trust other people to find those things out, get the evidence and tell it to you…. [W]e all have to ground our beliefs in social trust.”
We trust historians to tell us about the American Revolution, we trust scientists to tell us about gravity, we trust journalists to tell us what’s happening around the world and we trust preachers to tell us about God. Every time we choose to trust one historian, scientist, journalist or preacher, we simultaneously reject another. That’s not a bad thing. But it’s something to be aware of. We rarely choose our beliefs based solely on evidence, but based on the relationships we value, the fears we believe and the desires we have. Evidence is not what shaped us, and it’s not what will change us.
There’s an interesting example of this in Scripture after King David committed adultery in 2 Samuel 12. The prophet Nathan had to call him out in a way that would lead to repentance rather than denial or self-justification. So Nathan reported to David that a very rich man in his kingdom had done a great injustice by stealing a very poor man’s only sheep. Fuming, King David said, “Who is this man?” Nathan responded, “You are the man. And you stole much more than a sheep. You stole a man’s wife.”
When it comes to shaping our beliefs, feelings often trump facts. If you want to make someone think, you can’t just give them evidence. You have to make them feel something. Remember, the prophet Nathan didn’t confront King David for sleeping with someone’s wife. Instead, he told him a story about a sheep.
Evidence is great at reinforcing our current beliefs. It’s usually lousy, however, at changing our minds.
So the next time you see someone share something controversial on Facebook, stop and think before you decide to fix their wrong beliefs with your cold hard evidence. Your facts might leave them stumped and speechless, but they won’t leave them changed, which should be the goal.
There are two reasons it’s important to understand that feelings almost always trump facts.
- Because if you want to really make a difference in someone’s life, you can’t do that by filling their head with facts. You do it by filling their heart with emotion.
- Because we all need to evaluate where we’ve dismissed truth because it made us uncomfortable. We would all do well to heed author Henry Cloud’s wise words: “The fool tries to adjust the truth so he does not have to adjust to it.”
In our pursuit of truth, let’s strive to become more compassionate toward others and more honest with ourselves.