What is rationalized is not always reasonable. What is justifiable is not always just.
In the early 1950’s, a Chicago-area cult named the Seekers believed they were able to communicate with aliens. Dorothy Martin, the group leader, would transcribe the cosmic communications through automatic writing.
While communicating, the aliens informed her the world would end catastrophically on Dec. 21, 1954. Several of the Seekers quit their jobs and sold their homes, expecting salvation from a flying saucer.
Dec. 21, 1954 came and went without ruin. The Seekers, who were so emotionally invested in a belief system that proved to be unequivocally wrong, struggled at first for an explanation. But rationalization soon occurred.
A new transmission from the aliens arrived declaring that Earth had been saved at the last minute as a result of the Seekers’ meditations the night of supposed destruction.
The Seekers, who were previously indifferent towards the press, began to urgently express their beliefs in public. Despite heavy criticism and mockery, the Seekers continued to believe in their alien deities. Ironically, the decimation of everything they believed allowed them to become even more confident of their beliefs.
As it turns out, logical conclusions are often illogical and inconclusive. Although the Seekers’ astral cult is an extreme example of self-delusion, many of us are guilty of our own convictions in half-truths.
Our minds tend to gravitate towards facts that agree with our beliefs, while dismissing other facts that conflict with our worldview. This occurs because our ability to reason is actually connected to our emotions. Positive or negative thoughts are formed about people, things or ideas within a matter of milliseconds, before we are even aware of it happening.
As we evolved in a hostile environment, we were required to make rapid decisions in order to survive. We now apply these fight or flight reflexes not only to physical danger, but to information as well.
That doesn’t mean that reason is completely driven by emotion. Reasoning just occurs after emotional judgments are calculated, which can lead down a path of biased thinking. Reasoning through emotional responses is what cultivates our values.
As we mature and our sense of self becomes more solidified, so do our values. We are less likely to alter our well-established perception of the world, especially about ideas we care about greatly.
Several psychologists have conducted studies regarding bias and fact. One study gathered a group of Republicans that believed Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were both linked to the 9/11 attacks.
The researchers cited the 9/11 commission report as well as President Bush’s own words – that he denied his administration had “said the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.”
Only 1 of 49 participants changed their mind regarding the Iraq-Al Qaeda link. The others either created counter arguments or flat out refused to believe the facts the researchers had presented.
Similar tests conducted regarding President Obama’s birth origin, climate change and vaccines produced very similar results.
It turns out that people will seek out information that confirms what they already believe – not a terrifically new concept.
Yet, in a world where it is increasingly easier to consume information based on our own unique and specific interests, perhaps our fight or flight survival skills are not well suited for the information age.
On an issue as important as climate change, it is frightening that a major indicator of whether or not you accept the science depends on your political party. What is even more frightening, according to a 2008 Pew survey, is that college-educated Republicans are less likely to agree that the planet is warming due to human action than non-college educated Republicans.
This means that despite facts, the more educated a person is, the more they will stand by their own value-based convictions. And instead of simply refusing to believe in facts, they are able to form arguments based on educated reasoning – no matter that this educated reasoning is irrational.
To be fair, Democrats can be equally blinded by their own passions. Many liberal leaders hold the belief that childhood vaccines are the cause of autism despite the fact that the researcher whose work was responsible for this assertion, Andrew Wakefield, lost his license to practice medicine because his autism research was heavily fabricated.
We all carry some bias when interpreting new information. What can be done to overcome such shades of perception? It is not wrong to dwell in the abstract world of emotions. But it is wrong to allow emotionally charged rationalizations to substitute fact based reasoning. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to be proven wrong, should such proof be based on measurable fact.