Your Surroundings Mirror Your Beliefs
WEDNESDAY, July 1 -- Whatever you believe, new research suggests that you're likely to surround yourself with others who feel the same way, whether they be friends or talking heads on television.
"Never having any contact with the other side is a very safe way of protecting your beliefs. It's a little bit primitive, but successful," said study co-author Dolores Albarracin, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Albarracin and colleagues from the University of Florida, Northwestern University and Ohio University reviewed 91 previous studies on how people deal with information that confirms or contradicts their opinions. Their analysis appears in the July issue of the journal Psychological Bulletin.
The new study confirmed that people have "a moderate preference for information that confirms their points of view. It is sometimes attenuated, but for the most part it tends to be there," Albarracin said.
Overall, the studies asked people whether they wanted to view or read information that either upheld their point of view or opposed it. The researchers found that people were twice as likely to seek out supporting material than contradictory material. And they were especially likely to seek out confirming opinions on such topics as religion, politics or ethics, Albarracin said.
Researchers have debated this topic for some time, trying to figure out exactly why people don't tend to be exposed to contradicting points of view, Albarracin noted.
"One argument is that it's not that you are purposefully trying to seek confirmation: if you are a Democrat, you're more likely to be surrounded by Democratic information," she said. "The other point of view is that it is by choice. It makes you feel a lot better to confirm what you already believe than risk feeling like a fool or confused, having these more uncertain feelings."
But there are exceptions, she added. "One class of folks are what we called 'defensively confident,'" she said, noting that they will actively seek out opposing points of view.
"These are the folks who like to go into debate," she added. "They feel super-confident. They go and read anything and refute it."
On the other hand, people with the most firm beliefs are less likely to seek out other opinions. "The more dogmatic and close-minded you are, the worse the bias is," Albarracin said.
Michael Young, an associate professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, noted that the study itself is revealing: it points to examples of bias toward conservatism -- including mentions of Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney -- without looking at the other side.
"It is always easier for us to identify these biases that suggest close-mindedness in others than it is to identify them in ourselves or those who agree with us, even if you are a scientist who studies bias," he said.
Peter H. Ditto, a psychology professor at the University of California at Irvine, said the study "confirms a lot of previous scientific work -- and conforms nicely to most people's intuitions."
Ditto said, "We are not rational information processors -- or information seekers. We perceive ourselves as seekers of the truth. We don't try to just seek out information that will confirm our beliefs, otherwise we would see our own illicit hand in constructing a biased truth. But when we go looking for the truth, we usually look toward places and people that are likely to believe as we believe."
Trinity University has more on social psychology.
Posted: July 2009
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