Yesterday, we looked at some new research that found that when conservatives were exposed to evidence demonstrating the falsity of a partisan belief – such as a report demonstrating that Iraq didn’t have WMD, or that lowering taxes doesn’t increase government revenue – they became more convinced than ever that those beliefs were actually true. The scientists call this “the backfire effect”.
The researchers argue that conservatives are particularly vulnerable to this cognitive flaw, as their beliefs tend to be more rigid and immutable. But I’m not so sure. As a liberal partisan hack, I’m very aware of how my political biases distort my processing of information. I fixate on news that jives with my beliefs and tend to ignore those inconvenient facts that contradict my inner talking points.
This is a deeply human trait. One of the first scientists to really study this was Leon Festinger, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota. In the summer of 1954, Festinger was reading the morning newspaper when he encountered a short article about Marion Keech, a housewife in suburban Minneapolis who was convinced that the apocalypse was coming. Keech had started getting messages from aliens a few years before, but now the messages were getting eerily specific. According to Sananda, an extra-terrestrial from the planet Clarion who was in regular contact with Keech, human civilization would be destroyed by a massive flood at midnight on December 20, 1954.
Keech’s sci-fi prophecy soon gained a small band of followers. They trusted her divinations, and marked the date of Armageddon on their calendars. Many of them quit their jobs and sold their homes. The cultists didn’t bother buying Christmas presents or making arrangements for New Years Eve, since nothing would exist by then.
Festinger immediately realized that Keech would make a great research subject. He decided to infiltrate the group by pretending to be a true believer. What Festinger wanted to study was the reaction of the cultist on December 21, when the world wasn’t destroyed and no spaceship appeared. Would Keech recant? What would happen when her prophesy failed?
On the night of December 20, Keech’s followers gathered in her home and waited for instructions from the aliens. Midnight inexorably approached. When the clock read 12:01 and there were still no aliens, the cultists began to worry. A few began to cry. The aliens had let them down. But then Keech received a new telegram from outer space, which she quickly transcribed on her notepad. “This little group sitting all night long had spread so much light,” the aliens told her, “that god saved the world from destruction. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.” It was their stubborn faith that had prevented the apocalypse. Although Keech’s predictions had been falsified, the group was now more convinced than ever that the aliens were real. They began proselytizing to others, sending out press releases and recruiting new believers. This is how they reacted to the dissonance of being wrong: by being more sure than ever that they were right.
In other words, those members of the alien cult were just like conservatives learning that Iraq didn’t have WMD. They were so committed to their beliefs – they had so much invested in the idea that the world would end, or that Saddam had chemical weapons – that dissonant facts made them double-down. It would be too painful to be wrong, and so they convinced themselves that they were right.