Why it’s so hard to change our beliefs

November 19, 2020

Think about a few things you feel like you know for sure. Things that everyone can agree on. For example: chocolate is good; girls are biologically prone towards liking pink; Smashmouth is awful; it feels natural when, in straight couples, the male earns more than the female.

These, or anything seems true, because they’re obvious. These are easy thoughts, no-brainers. Our brains are lazy. As Daniel Kahneman wrote, “Laziness is built deep into our brains.”

“People think that the brain is like a computer,” says personality and neuroscience researcher Colin DeYoung. “If you think about it, a better model to use is a robot with a limited energy source.”

It’s trendy to discuss psychological mechanisms, individual differences, talents, and gender-specific skills through the lens of evolutionary psychology. If lots of people do something, there must be a biological reason, or that behavior wouldn’t exist. But survival is the keystone of evolution. Thanks to 5 billion years of evolution, your brain is king of one thing: achieving its goals while using as little energy as possible. Laziness is built deep into our nature. Whenever we think, we take shortcuts. “The brain has no gimmick, just five billion years of research and development.” Over the course of millennia, our brain has developed countless ways to successfully adapt to its changing environment and make decisions based on little information.

If we go back in time, we can see that things we learn, believe, and do (beliefs, preferences, skills, communication) are all pretty malleable. And not just over the course of evolution: there’s a good chance you’re mildly horrified by some of your high school-era fashion choices. So yes, people are malleable. We change. The only thing that doesn’t really change, which billions of years of evolution can attest to, is that we are lazy, goal-directed organisms that work in groups.

Our eyes even enjoy someone whose face is “easy on the eyes.” And so I present the logical foundation: our minds prefer information that’s “easy on the brain.” A few key principles in social psychology follow this idea:

•The Mere Exposure Effect. Merely being exposed to something makes us like it more. It’s why companies pay more money to have their products placed eye-level in grocery stores. There’s no magic here, just a process of repeatedly learning to pair “this thing” with “nothing bad happening.” When we learn that something is safe, familiar, it becomes likeable in its own way—even if we never have any intention of moving back to Buffalo or wherever we graduated high school from. Even if you aren’t besties with the guys at your gym, there’s something comforting about seeing them when you get your weekly pump on. 

We like things that remind us of other things that we like. We love our own hunches and information that confirms our hunches. We like information that we get from other people, and that seems to gel with what we already know. All of these cues hold a torch to something: this is good! Learn this! Pay attention here! Information that’s easy to process feels good because we can relate it to other things we already know.

Fluency. When discussing your English/Spanish/Korean/Python know-how, fluency refers to how easily we can process a language. The more fluent you are, the less effort it takes to decipher a message. Fluency can also refer to the way we handle other pieces of information and thinking itself.

Reading something in your native language; a name like “John,” smooth shapes: these are all fluent. A name like “Craaüµqqq,” reading a book in a language class, text that’s printed in a weird font, music in a genre you’ve never even heard of, for example—these are all disfluent, a seemingly more-difficult process that makes something feel a bit off. Fluency is like love or porn—we get it, even if we can’t always describe it. It’s the “warm glow” of what’s familiar or easy to understand since 1910⁠. For visual images, characteristics such as symmetry, repetition, image clarity, and high contrast (identifying dark items on a white background) all promote fluency; verbally, we like company names that are easier to read.

The faster our brain can process or understand something, the more fluent a thought it is—and this is what can trigger a positive emotional response⁠. Neurons that fire together wire together, so seeing a pattern for the umpteenth time—information that our brain knows precisely what to do with—means less processing volatility for our neurons, allowing for more energy efficient categorization of a new piece of information.⁠ We like new pieces of incoming information that fit in nicely with whatever filing system it already has in place.

Our brain doesn’t have separate areas for thinking and feeling: these processes actually influence each other.  When something sounds familiar, it’s easy to assume it’s true. And how likely are we to get our hunches fact-checked? The problem is that the source of our hunches—repetition—has nothing to do with how true the information actually is.

When it comes to fact-checking, the more mental reshuffling we’d have to do, the more likely we are to say that something is false. If you’ve heard “women prefer to stay at home” since you were a kid, and have been hearing it forever, why would you stop thinking that? If you’ve heard “anyone can be rich if they’re willing to work hard” since you were young, why would you doubt it?

If we come face-to-face with conflicting ideas, we tend to change whatever belief is easiest to change.
Anyone can be rich if they’re willing to work hard + I am not rich can become I did not work hard enough. (Randomness is too much to deal with.)
People get what they deserve + they don’t have anything can become they must have done something to deserve that. (We want to believe that the world is fair, or else we won’t make an effort.)