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Unformatted text preview: 48 The last word Made-up minds Since political beliefs are rooted in emotions, says Chris Mooney, the facts are often irrelevant. }\ MAN WITH a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you dis- agree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point." So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger, in a passage that might have been referring to arguments over the presi- dent's birthplace or the causes of climate change and autism. But it was too early for all of that-this was the 1950s-and Festinger was actually describing what would become a famous case study in psy- chology: a group of Chicago UFO devotees who thought they were communicating with extraterrestrials. On Dec. 21, 1954, the day the cult's leader had said the world would end in cata- clysm, Festinger and his team were with the Seekers, whom they had decided to study. This was the moment he was wait- ing for. How would people so emotionally inVested in a belief system react, now that it had been soundly refuted? When the prophecy failed, the group struggled for an explanation. But then ratio- nalization set in. A new message arrived from the aliens, announcing that the Seekers had been spared at the last minute. Festinger slllllmarized the extraterrestrials' new pro- nouncement: "The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction." From that day forward, the Seekers, pre- viously shy of the press and indifferent toward evangelizing, began to proselytize. "Their sense of urgency was enormous," wrote Festinger. The devastation of all they had believed had made them even more certain of their beliefs. In the annals of denial, it doesn't get more extreme than that. The cultists lost their jobs, the press mocked them, and there were efforts to keep them away from impressionable yonng minds. But though the Seekers might lie at the far end of the spectrum of human self-delusion, there's plenty to go around. And since Festinger's day, an array of new discoveries in psy- chology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our pre-existing beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward "motivated reason- THE WEEK May 20, 2011 ing" helps explain \vhy we find groups still polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal. It seems that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts. T HE THEORY OF motivated reason- ing builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion-what researchers often call "affect." Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive Our brains reject threatening new information....
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- Fall '07