|When evidence conflicts with strongly held beliefs, how easy is it for us to change our minds?|
There may be many motivations behind why we hold certain beliefs, but what are these motivations, and in the event that evidence shows otherwise, how easy is it to change our point of view?
Our LANSA study on the wheat flour fortification value chain found that inconclusive evidence on the reduction in anaemia through food fortification is often deemed ‘reliable knowledge’ and is the basis for interventions (such as wheat flour fortification) for which there is no specific evidence. There may be other motives behind why stakeholders may push for these interventions. But what it comes down to, is that they really want them to work.
Large scale food fortification interventions aren’t the only area where facts do not reign supreme. As part of a LANSA Research to Action pilot we went back to selected communities we had gathered data from to share what we had found out about child undernutrition in their community for our study on women’s work and nutrition. Most community members agreed with the data, even thanking us for taking the time to explain it to them. A few others, however, were angered by our claims that we had found high levels of child undernutrition in their village. Disregarding what evidence suggested, they insisted that their children were healthy.
They may have dismissed our findings due to our outsider status. But there are other reasons. Psychological research has found that people can find a way to dismiss claims, no matter how strong the evidence presented is. Serving one’s own identity and maintaining meaning and world views, it turns out, are strong motives for rationalization and defensiveness in the face of conflicting evidence. People’s beliefs are usually based on unfalsifiable statements. For example, some may say that evidence of the benefits of increased women’s political participation are irrelevant because it is not women’s role to begin with. Such statements can reduce the importance of scientific inquiry in answering social questions.
Our objective for our research often is greater societal impact. We believe that testable data and evidence-based policy is the best way to create change at the policy and community levels. But if the results aren’t ‘acceptable’ to people what can we do to ensure collective decisions are based on evidence?
For policy level stakeholders and decision makers, one way might be to simply ask, “What would have to be true in order for you to change your mind?” What evidence would they need in order to convince them that their own strongly held beliefs may not be true? Encouraging people to answer this question may push them out of inclinations to justify their beliefs rather than provide evidence for them.
However, people may veer away from answering the question at all for more morally-linked issues such as gender or religion. What will we ask the politicians who recently made misogynistic comments to change their mind about gender equality in politics? The most effective route to have research make an impact in such a situation would probably be to build alliances with people already sympathetic to the cause and create champions.
This does not mean there is no point in engaging with others who are not as open to being challenged. When the evidence presents a unique perspective and challenges norms it may even be more important to share, but while recognizing the appeal of unfalsifiable beliefs. The aim is not to ‘convince’ people to change their thinking, but more importantly to generate a dialogue that can help push perspectives and further ideas, on all sides.