Knowledge resistance – a threat to democracy

We interpret facts in a way that confirms our worldview, is the conclusion of a group of LiU researchers. This increases polarisation in society and makes democratic discourse more difficult.

Election posters Henrik Montgomery/TT

LiU researcher Gustav Tinghög and his colleagues study why we sometimes fail to make rational decisions. One of their conclusions is that we often consciously choose to interpret information such that our worldview is confirmed.

Gustav Tinghög wearing a baseball cap Photo credit Thor BalkhedThey have coined the term “motivated thinking” to describe the phenomenon. Motivated thinking opens the door to knowledge resistance and fake news.
It increases polarisation, and decreases dialogue and the use of several perspectives. It sets aside one of the fundamental pillars of a democratic society, by which individuals have the desire and ability to change opinion in the light of new information.

The JEDI lab research group (where “JEDI” is an acronym of “Judgement, Emotion, Decision and Intuition”) has investigated, among other things, how people interpret information about the effects of immigration.

People who classified themselves as world citizens interpreted information presented to them about the effects of immigration on criminality as positive. People who defined themselves as Swedish interpreted the same information as negative.
The two groups were given the same data, but interpreted them differently, depending on how they classified themselves: “more Swedish” or “more world citizen”.

“Believing certain things makes us feel good, even if they’re not true. We want to achieve a consistent worldview, and feel uncomfortable when it is threatened. Our identity is threatened. If, for example, we don’t like a particular political party, we are quick to assess all suggestions from that party as bad, even if we would have thought differently if the suggestion had been made by someone else”, says Gustav Tinghög.

“We see motivated thinking everywhere. But I believe that it’s most dangerous when people believe that they are immune against it, and are quick to accuse others.”

Even people with good analytical skills can use motivated thinking, sometimes more than other people. The explanation may be that it requires a certain mental capacity to be able to reach a conclusion that is contradicted by the facts”, says Gustav Tinghög.

Motivated thinking is not always dangerous. Sometimes it’s necessary to cope with everyday life.

“One harmless example is how we often believe in our own awesomeness. A certain degree of excess optimism makes us feel good, and often has a positive effect. It is, however, more dangerous if we use motivated thinking when it comes to major societal issues such as climate change or social change.”

The aim of Gustav Tinghög’s research into decision-making is to increase knowledge that can help people make better decisions, and to find out why they make the decisions they make. Gustav Tinghög has some suggestions:

“There are several seemingly simple tricks to use. You can make a list of advantages and disadvantages, and in this way help yourself to understand why you made a particular decision. Another good way of counteracting motivated thinking is to become aware of the situations in which you meet people, and the type of people you meet. They are probably people who confirm your worldview. Who do you avoid? Consider how you interpret information based on this.”

Translated by George Farrants

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