Facts Don't Sway Us

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Facts Don't Sway Us

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Political commentator James Carville once commented that people choose their news outlets like a drunk uses a lamppost—for support, not illumination.

Carville’s reflections are also applicable to diverse groups. Because organizations are now more diverse than ever, people are likely to work with, to supervise, or to work people who are different than they are. But, how do we respond to these differences, especially when it comes to opinions about completing work tasks.

Pultizer Prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert’s recently published work helps inform this discussion. She examined why facts don’t change people’s minds. Drawing from cognitive psychology, she arrived at several possibilities.

The first is what is called the confirmation bias. Here, people embrace information that supports their own views and reject contradicting information. Carville’s drunk and a lamppost analogy works well here.

But that is not the only reason. Another factor is called the myside bias. Here, people are skilled at detecting holes in others’ arguments, but are quite poor when examining their own.

A third reason people reject facts is because they rely on the expertise of others. Few of us, for example, can actually explain the mechanics of a toilet, but we know what a toilet is and the end process. There is no need to understand the nuts and bolts of the operation. While that partial understanding might be fine for some things, when it comes to issues requiring a critical perspective, reliance on others’ expertise might actually be harmful and perpetuate false ideas.

What, then, is the solution? Being aware of our own biases might help. So, too, might making emotional appeals, backed up by supporting facts. These and other solutions are needed to better understand divergent perspectives and sort through fact and fiction.