A Rational Identity

by Kaj_Sotala 2 min read12th Jul 201026 comments


How facts backfire (previous discussion) discusses the phenomenon where correcting people's mistaken beliefs about political issues doesn't actually make them change their minds. In fact, telling them the truth about things might even reinforce their opinions and entrench them even firmer in their previous views. "The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong", says one of the researchers quoted in the article.

This should come as no surprise to the people here. But the interesting bit is that the article suggests a way to make people evaluate information in a less biased manner. They mention that one's willingness to accept contrary information is related to one's self-esteem: Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t.

I suspect that the beliefs that are the hardest to change, even if the person had generally good self-esteem, are those which are central to their identity. If someone's identity is built around capitalism being evil, or socialism being evil, then any arguments about the benefits of the opposite economical system are going to fall on deaf ears. Not only will that color their view of the world, but it's likely that they're deriving a large part of their self-esteem from that identity. Say something that challenges the assumptions built into their identity, and you're attacking their self-esteem.

Keith Stanovich tells us that simply being intelligent isn't enough to avoid bias. Intelligent people might be better at correcting for bias, but there's no strong correlation between intelligence and the disposition to actually correct for your own biases. Building on his theory, we can assume that threatening opinions will push even non-analytical people into thinking critically, but non-threatening ones won't. Stanovich believes that spreading awareness of biases might be enough to help a lot of people, and to some degree it might. But we also know about the tendency to only use your awareness of bias to attack arguments you don't like. In the same way that telling people facts about politics sometimes only polarizes opinions, telling people about biases might similarly only polarize the debate as everyone thinks their opposition is hopelesly deluded and biased.

So we need to create a new thinking disposition, not just for actively attacking the perceived threats, but for critically evaluating your opinions. That's hard. And I've found for a number of years now that the main reason I try to actively re-evaluate my opinions and update them as necessary is because doing so is part of my identity. I pride myself on not holding onto ideology and for changing my beliefs when it feels like they should be changed. Admitting that somebody else is right and I am wrong does admittedly hurt, but it also feels good that I was able to do so despite the pain. And when I'm in a group where everyone seems to agree about something as self-evident, it frequently works as a warning sign that makes me question the group consensus. Part of the reason why I do that is that I enjoy the feeling of knowing that I'm actively on guard against my mind just adopting whatever belief happens to be fashionable in the group I'm in.

It seems to me that if we want to actually raise the sanity waterline and make people evaluate things critically, and not just conform to different groups than is the norm, a crucial part of that is getting people to adopt an identity of critical thinking. This way, the concept of identity ceases to be something that makes rational thinking harder and starts to actively aid it. I don't really know how one can effectively promote a new kind of identity, but we should probably take lessons from marketers and other people who appeal strongly to emotions. You don't usually pick your identity based on logical arguments. (On the upside, this provides a valuable hint to the question of how to raise rationalist children.)