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Here's Why People Advocate False Beliefs, Conspiracy Theories Despite Evidence

Sep 11, 2018 09:10 PM EDT
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From flat Earthers to climate change and Holocaust deniers, there's a solid chunk of people out there with beliefs that contradict overwhelming evidence.

New research has experts delving into the psyche of people who espouse false beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The Study

In the new study published in the journal Open Mind, researchers from the University of California Berkeley suggest that feedback not evidence dictates people's certainty in their knowledge or principles of right and wrong.

According to a press release from UC Berkeley, the team found that other people's reactions — whether positive or negative — are more likely to reinforce someone's opinion, task, or interaction than logic or scientific data.

It's also revealed that people's certainty is more dependent on the most recent results rather than long-term cumulative results.

The study involved over 500 adults who had to look at different combinations of colored shapes on the computer. Without giving the participants any clues, definition, or defining characteristics, the team asked them to identify which of the 24 colored shapes qualified as "Daxxy," which is a made-up term coined just for the experiment. After each guess, the participants were asked to report on their certainty, then told whether their guess was right or wrong.

The results showed that the certainty of the participants depended on whether they correctly named a Daxxy in the previous four or five guesses rather than the total items they got correct.

"What we found interesting is that they could get the first 19 guesses in a row wrong, but if they got the last five right, they felt very confident," Louis Marti, lead study author and a Ph.D. psychology student at UC Berkeley, says in a statement. "It's not that they weren't paying attention, they were learning what a Daxxy was, but they weren't using most of what they learned to inform their certainty."

He adds that an ideal learner would base his or her certainty on observations as well as feedback accumulated through time instead of just the last few guesses.

More Findings Analyze Learning Process

In the study, Marti and the rest of the team found that receiving positive feedback for what they're saying can make people believe that they know more than they actually do. This confidence makes them less likely to seek out and learn more information about the subject, as well as take into account contradicting opinions or facts.

"If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don't, you're less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know," Marti explains.

Fellow study author Celeste Kidd adds that if a crazy theory is able to make a correct prediction a few times, the person behind the theory could get stuck in the belief and become less open to other information.

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