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Mindful : October 2017
What we humans believe has always been shaped by the group we identify with. In the age of filter bubbles, the habit of looking to our tribe for all the answers may be escalating. I found one! Someone who actually answers political polls over the phone—an endangered species in the call-screening age. Sure, it’s not on a par with stumbling across a unicorn or a four-leaf clover, but it still made my day. It offered an opportunity to ask a question that has been gnawing at me: What’s happening psychologically when people believe claims that are factually untrue and definitively debunked, such as that Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya? In my October 2015 installment of “Brain Science,” I described what cognitive psychology has shown about why misinformation is “sticky.” I delved into why many people still believe something like the erroneous claim that weap- ons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the 2003 invasion even after hearing that claim disproved repeatedly. Once we think something is a fact, it’s hard to replace it with a new fact. The reasons I cited then were numerous. We’re wired to assume, initially, that an asser- tion is true, because questioning it is cognitively more demanding than accepting it. We’re also inclined toward “motivated reasoning,” a form of cog nitive bias whereby we’re more likely to accept claims that conform to our existing beliefs. In the case of Iraq’s supposed WMDs, that belief might be that no evil is too g reat for Saddam Hussein or that the US invasion (sold to the public through the WMD claim) was justified. To someone who holds either or both beliefs, acknowledging the absence of WMDs produces a feeling of cog nitive uneasiness and → Belonging Is Believing Sharon Begley is senior science writer with STAT, a new national health and medicine publication. She is also author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain and Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions (2 017, Simon & Schuster). 20 mindful October 2017 Illustration by Edmon de Haro brain science