New research by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan shows that people hold onto erroneous beliefs even when presented with scientifically backed facts. When he tracked families’ conceptions about the safety of vaccines before and after confronted with CDC pamphlets on the subject, Nyhan found that they didn’t change their minds. “Some families…became even more likely to hunker down in their existing beliefs, in what’s known as ‘the backfire effect,’” explains Grist, which laments how this mindset is holding back action on climate change. Nyhan theorized that when false information is tied to someone’s identity, it is likely to stay entrenched no matter what intervention is used.
But there could be one way to change people’s minds. A technique called ‘self-affirmation’ has been used to help women and minorities shed “unconscious, self-deprecating biases before taking a difficult test. By focusing on their own strengths and past successes beforehand…test-takers are more likely to score highly,” Grist explains. Nyhan has found that instead of trying to persuade people with a campaign of facts, it is more effective to target people’s beliefs about themselves. Having people recall a time when they felt good about themselves can make them more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, such as global warming, reports Maria Konnikova in a New Yorker article titled, “I don’t want to be right.”