When Beliefs Yield to Evidence: Reducing Biased Evaluation by Affirming the Self
Citation: Geoffrey Cohen, Joshua Aronson, Claude Steele (2000) When Beliefs Yield to Evidence: Reducing Biased Evaluation by Affirming the Self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Volume 12) (RSS)
Our political affiliation doesn't just indicate what we believe—it affirms "who we are"—our identity. One reason people may cling to their political beliefs is because they are protecting their identity. Thus, it follows that if you make people feel better about who they are by affirming their identity—say having them reflect on their sense of humor—they would be more open to diverse political beliefs, and we may end up in less of a red state vs. blue state deadlock.
The authors of this paper set out to test just this proposition. In general, people tend to cling to their beliefs even when faced with contrary evidence. They also tend to evaluate ambiguous information in a manner that supports preexisting views (Lord, Ross, & Lepper 1979). This is why you get a never-ending debate between conservatives and liberals on political talk shows. While reasonable evidence is presented by both sides, they never seem to come any closer to agreement. One reason that people cling so deeply to their beliefs is that they are also a source of identity - they say something about "who we are" to ourselves and the world. People might cling to their belief of capital punishment because it reinforces their identity as a social conservative. By threatening someone identity you are also threatening their self worth.
The authors of this paper thought if they affirmed people's identity in some other way, they'd be less likely to cling to their political beliefs. By giving people another source of self-worth their political attitudes become less important.
STUDIES: The authors ran three studies where they affirm people's identities and then see how they respond to information of opposing political views. For example, if a participant said humor was important to her, they ask her to write about a few times when she felt humorous and why she felt good about it. This manipulation was designed to affirm her identity and improve her self worth. They also administered a control condition where participants just remembered and wrote about what they ate for the last few days. After writing about something important to one's identity (humor) or the control (what you ate) participants read essays on capital punishment. Those who previously indicated they believed in capital punishment, read essays that opposed it, and visa versa.
The participants who had their identity affirmed (by reflecting on their self of humor for example) responded more favorably to the essays that countered their personal view. A second study used a more powerful self-affirmation manipulation and did the basically the same thing. The third study found that participants who had their identity affirmed were less biased in the way they viewed ambiguous information about abortion.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
Overall shoring up people's self-worth takes the sting out of contrary ideas making them less painful to accept as true. Because their identity was already affirmed, they didn't have to rely on their beliefs to define themselves. It brings up the question of why we are in such a polarizing political environment? Could it be that we are relying on our political affiliation to fulfill too many of our identity needs? Perhaps it's worth considering finding other ways to feel good about who we are so that we can be less polarized in our political identities.