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How We Think
Letter to the Editor
Wednesday, September 21, 2011 • Posted September 21, 2011

Dear Gerry,

Most of us like to think we’re halfway objective, open to information, capable of weighing and measuring data. However, most of us would be wrong about that; we humans just aren’t built that way.Since at least 2000, many research projects have demonstrated that new information, even verifiable facts, contrary to our mindset do not alter our views. Indeed, hard data which contradict our preconceived (and therefore incorrect) views actually reinforce our inaccurate views. In this way, our brains allow us to keep on trucking blissfully throughout our daily existences without having internal wrestling matches disturbing our peace. A related research finding is that for most of us, belief generates opinion, not facts generating opinion. In fact, our brains are so determined to eliminate hassle that facts will actually be twisted to reinforce an opinion. It gets worse: we will accept bad information outright rather than revise an opinion. The more confident we are in our belief, the more we will twist new data and the more determinedly entrenched we become in an arguably unfactual belief. We are very loyal!Unfortunately, researchers haven’t come up with ways to make it more comfortable for us to confront ideas contrary to our beliefs. And Gerry, I hate to tell you this, but factual news articles have been specified as not making a dent. (Don’t shoot the messenger!)These findings certainly do not bode well for successfully disseminating information in general, and they are perfectly gloomy if one accepts that a well-functioning democracy depends upon an educated citizenry. There goes the purpose of a free press, presidential debates, news’ fact-finding attempts, and all attempts to enlighten people with information so that we can be depended upon to make well-balanced, sensible decisions. Perhaps this summary of recent research will help us all understand why some of your letters to the editor are so filled with venom and personal attack. It’s normal for brains to reject what doesn’t corroborate our personal beliefs and opinions, and the more defensive we feel, the crankier we get. As I’ve said before, it would behoove all writers to remove the venom and strive for a calm presentation. I guess it boils down to this: if a letter is foaming at the mouth in anger, chances are its writer has already lost his objective. Human brains just don’t want more hassle!

Helen Liston

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