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Are We Too Dumb for Democracy? The Logic Behind Self-Delusion

When faced with facts that do not fit seamlessly into our individual belief systems, our minds automatically reject (or backfire) the presented facts.

A recent cognitive study, as reported by the Boston Globe, concluded that:

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

In light of these findings, researchers concluded that a defense mechanism, which they labeled “backfire”, was preventing individuals from producing pure rational thought. The result is a self-delusion that appears so regularly in normal thinking that we fail to detect it in ourselves, and often in others: When faced with facts that do not fit seamlessly into our individual belief systems, our minds automatically reject (or backfire) the presented facts. The result of backfire is that we become even more entrenched in our beliefs, even if those beliefs are totally or partially false.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” said Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher of the Michigan study. The occurrence of backfire, he noted, is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

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