This is why we think we're always right – even when we're not

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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A new study finds that we’re stubborn with our erroneous beliefs – even in the face of conflicting evidence.

There are some beliefs that just can’t be shaken. And often they’re held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The persistence of fad diets. A belief in the all-purpose powers of coconut oil. Charcoal whitening your teeth.

Well, new research suggests these certainties can’t be tackled with anything as feeble as hard data. Instead, our sense of true and false or right and wrong is far more influenced by the positive or negative feedback we receive – such as seeing clearer skin when using coconut oil to remove makeup, even if it’s got far more to do with the new Sunday Riley serum you’ve started dabbing on before bed. 

A new study suggests our sense of true and false is influenced by the positive or negative feedback we receive – not hard evidence

Psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley have discovered that once people start to form a belief, they will be unlikely to change it or be willing to educate themselves further.

“If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to lean how little you know,” said Louis Marti, the lead author of the study.

Equally, the research examined the way people form certain beliefs and found that their confidence when learning about a topic was based on their most recent success, rather than examining long-term results.

“If you use a crazy theory to make a correct prediction a couple of times, you can get stuck in that belief and may not be as interested in gathering more information,” said Celeste Kidd, a fellow author of the study. 

To reach these conclusions, the psychologists surveyed over 500 adults and asked them to look at different combinations of coloured shapes. They were then asked to decide which of the combinations qualified as a ‘Daxxy’ – a particular arrangement of shapes invented for the purpose of the test. After each answer, participants received feedback on whether they’d guessed right or wrong and were also asked to report their certainty in each answer they gave.

The results revealed that the subjects repeatedly based their confidence in their responses on whether they’d correctly identified a ‘Daxxy’ within the previous five guesses, rather than applying any of the information they’d learned about what constituted the shape throughout the whole process. 

This led the researchers to conclude people don’t learn from their mistakes – or alter their views – based upon hard evidence but instead, the most recent negative feedback they’ve received. And if there are more people out there reinforcing their erroneous ideas? Well, then a change in thought is unlikely to take place at all. 

“What we found interesting is that they could get the first 19 guesses in a row wrong, but if they got the last five right, they felt very confident,” said Marti. “It’s not that they weren’t paying attention, they were learning what a Daxxy was, but they weren’t using most of what they learned to inform their certainty.”

So perhaps next time you’re adamant you’re in the right, check the facts – it’ll save everyone some time. 

Images: Getty 


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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is a freelance writer with an excessive amount of opinions. She tweets @moya_lm.