Why People Don’t Believe the Facts

A few months back I lamented on my Facebook page that I was frustrated that I could have a room full of people and walk through the data and evidence supporting a Housing First approach, and people would still debate it. One of my pals, Marcella Maguire, commented that it was because of ideology. That got me thinking and researching why and how people’s beliefs influence what they see as truth…or how and when truth can influence people’s beliefs.

Then a couple weeks back I was doing another training and one attendee was quite adamant that just because something was published in a peer reviewed journal or had data to support it didn’t make it correct. I was dumbfounded by the statement. But it also inspired me to keep thinking and researching because if we are going to go about ensuring there is adequate affordable housing, effective social policy for marginalized populations, sufficient social welfare, put an end to homelessness – or any of the other pursuits that I am passionately invested in – then we have to better understand why some people don’t believe the facts.

One of the reasons people don’t believe the facts when presented to them or go to great lengths to try and persuade others that the data is faulty or not from reliable sources is because of something called “motivated reasoning”. It turns out our emotional responses and ability to reason is intertwined. We are hard-wired to have an emotional response to information quicker than our conscious thoughts. If people are presented with information that supports our pre-existing worldview or thoughts on a subject, we accept it with open arms. If people are presented with information that challenges how we already feel about something, it is our natural human instinct to see the information as a threat. When we are threatened, as a species, we apply our fight or flight response. So, we either ignore the information or we attack the sources/reliability of the information.

Another reason people don’t believe facts are directly related to how data is used in the modern age. A lot of facts are misinterpreted or select pieces of information are taken completely out of context and used in a manner to support an argument that they were never intended or designed to do. This is done entirely to support a point of view, not to be scientific at all. Put into the mix that loaded questions can be used in polling and surveying to simply prove an existing point of view or reject another point of view, and you realize quite quickly that we have become accustomed to “facts” being used in this way. Let me give you an example…if I asked 100 people if they would like to pay less in taxes, I would guess that most people would say yes. If it is not explained that there are budget deficits, service cuts that people depend upon, crumbling infrastructure, etc. that are all paid for by taxes then they are not really taking the full picture into account. On top of that, it has been well proven in psychology that scientific evidence is prone to misinterpretation and selective reading.

In this day and age, producing facts, figures and pretty graphs is quite popular. But seldom are the methods of the data capture shared. As a result, people can create information that simply supports their point of view. Take for example the Pepsi Challenge. First of all, it isn’t a double-blind study. Pepsi always wins – well, of the data that Pepsi shares with us. Ever heard a radio or TV advertisement where someone took the Pepsi Challenge and actually chose Coke? Surely there is at least one person out there that has taken the test that chose Coke.

Then there is the matter of terminology. As I have gone to lengths to talk about elsewhere, you can have a practice that is supported by evidence like Housing First. But if the phrase is misused to talk about activities that actually are not aligned with the practices that the data supports you can have people that reject the fact that Housing First works. Why? Because they have seen a version of something that was called “Housing First” that really wasn’t “Housing First” and therefore the data presented doesn’t align with their experience.

Yet another reason why people ignore or debate facts is because they do not believe the messenger. Even when instructed to be unbiased in listening to information, people form part of their impression on the credibility of the information based upon who is delivering it. The very notion of an “expert” is polarizing depending on whether the listener can relate to the messenger’s experience, expertise, education, and even morality. The observable attributes of the messenger can also have an impact. For example, non-white people trying to convince others that Obama is not Muslim has been proven to be more persuasive that white people doing the same thing.

I thought for quite some time that if I just bombarded people with the facts that they would get “it”. Truth is, however, that with some folks the more they are overloaded with empirical, unbiased evidence – even published, peer reviewed findings – the more tenaciously they hold onto their worldview and reject the information. For some it is as if the acceptance of new information can rattle their entire belief system and identity. Perhaps it is a slippery slope…if a person accepts that facts point to an opposite conclusion of what they have held true in one matter of their life, what about other parts of their life that they also thought to be true that may not be?

What does this all mean?

For sure, Marcella was right. My inability to get through to some groups using facts was because of the ideological stance of the receivers of the information.

But it also means that I need to do a better job or explaining to people why and how certain conclusions are reached on the information, pointing out how biases may have been present in the methods or the use of terms being incorrectly.

And it also means that I need to carefully consider my role and obligations as a messenger. Better considering my audience may allow me to better relate to their morality or worldview or appreciation of different types of expertise or experience. That in and of itself may make what I want to share more credible. It may even mean (gulp) that wearing something other than a t-shirt and jeans is appropriate for certain recipients of my message.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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