Believing what you need to believe

It’s a common belief that politics and policy-making would be better if it availed itself of the fruits of scientific endeavour.

Some call it ‘evidence-based policy‘ and it is often those on the left who call for much more of it. (Intriguingly, this is despite Tony Blair’s UK Government being a recent advocate of such an approach.)

But evidence, especially in the social sciences, is rarely unequivocal. Studies abound and, short of major review articles, they provide a smorgasbord from which anyone can judiciously select to provide a seemingly impregnable wall of evidence in favour of just about any position one cares to adopt.

And, increasingly, the political battle lines are being drawn over what counts as ‘evidence’ and what sources of that evidence are more or less reliable. Witness the explosion of ‘think tanks’ devoted to churning out reports on the ‘evidence’ – often as not, evidence published in peer-reviewed journals or from official sources or written by Harvard Professors.

So much is relatively well known. Less well known is that there is now scientific evidence that each one of us is influenced in our weighing of evidence by the requirements of our lives. In a ‘Pop Will Eat Itself‘ feat of reflexivity, the evidence is coming in on the role of evidence in people’s thinking – and it’s not all ‘thumbs up’ for the consequences of rushing to evidence-based policy.

Take this recent study, for example.

The experiment was simple.

People with children were selected who were roughly equal in their belief that homecare (as opposed to daycare) was best for pre-school children (n=36). Then their plans for their own children (caring for them at home or putting them in daycare) were identified.

Of the 36 participants, 18 were ‘conflicted’ – that is, they intended sending their children to daycare but were convinced that homecare was better; 18 were ‘unconflicted’ – that is, they were going to look after their children at home and believed that homecare was superior. From the paper:

Participants were given descriptions of two fictional studies, which we called the Thompson and Cummings studies. In the Thompson study, children were ran- domly assigned to either day care or home care. In the Cum- mings study, children in day-care and home-care groups were statistically matched on several relevant variables. Half of the participants were led to believe that the results of the Thompson study favored day care and the results of the Cummings study favored home care; the other half were led to believe the opposite.

Bastardi, Uhlmann and Ross (2011, p. 731)*

The findings were stark:

Evaluations of purported scientific evidence were shaped more by what participants desired to be true than by what they had initially believed to be true. Conflicted participants, who planned to use day care for their children but initially believed such care to be markedly inferior to home care, interpreted ambiguous scientific evidence in a manner congruent with their desire to believe that their plans would not be disadvantageous for their children. After they examined mixed scientific evidence, these conflicted participants shifted their beliefs and considered home care to be no better than day care. By contrast, after exposure to the same mixed evidence, unconflicted participants—those who shared the same initial belief in the superiority of home care and intended to use only home care when they became parents—maintained their strong initial belief.

(p. 732)

So, what’s the ‘takeaway’ from this kind of research?

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed it’s that modern life is getting increasingly ‘conflicted’ for people. We do a lot of things that our ‘instincts’ or even values suggest might not be best (for us, for those we care for, for our community or other people in general). We find ourselves compromising (or compromised) and, often, feel that we have to act in ways we would not have thought we should but now feel we have to.

These pressures are with us daily:

  • When we feel financially pressured we might feel the need to demand tax cuts, even though we don’t really think they’re good for society as  a whole;
  • when we fear unemployment (and its stigma) we might stick at a stressful job even though we think that stress is bad for our health;
  • when we are ‘time-poor’ and feel too stretched to meet our busy schedule we might become (or stay) as a two, three or four car family even though we believe that carbon emissions are destroying the climate;
  • and, of course,  as the quoted study directly demonstrated, when we feel we are (or are) losing economic ground we might feel we need two incomes to provide for our families properly and therefore choose daycare for our children even though we might think it is not best for them.

An increasingly ‘economic’ society (i.e., one in which the belief that decisions should primarily be driven by economic factors) that is based on individualism and competition generates these kinds of conflicts as a matter of course.

In the grip of those multiple vices, people will be more likely to be convinced by any research or evidence that suggests that the consequences of doing what they feel they have to do are actually not as bad as they initially feared. Such ‘evidence’ will be manna from heaven for our consciences and our anxieties.

So, for example:

  • Tax cuts – “the research shows” – can actually help economies to grow and so everyone benefits (i.e., tax cuts are not “bad for society as a whole”).
  • Stress – “the research shows” – can actually be good for you by pushing and challenging you to achieve better results (i.e., stress does not have to be “bad for our health”).
  • Carbon emissions – “the research shows” – are not actually causing climate change (i.e., a high rate of car ownership is not bad for the environment).
  • Quality daycare – “the research shows” – is no worse, and can be better, than homecare (i.e., sending your children to daycare does not disadvantage them).

My point here is not to argue about the specifics of the examples (i.e., what the research ‘actually’ shows in relation to them). It’s about the psychological tendency to believe what we need to believe.

In a political context where we are increasingly being ‘tempted’ – and subtly coerced – to act in ways (to ourselves, to others and to the planet) we might prefer not to act, any think tank or political party that shows us research that reduces our fears, concerns or just plain guilty feelings will suddenly be our saviour.

Which raises an issue for those on the left who advocate for ‘evidence-based research’.

Much of the time, the left is trying to convince people – via the ‘evidence’ – either that what they feel they need to do (own multiple cars, work at stressful jobs, demand tax cuts) they should not be doing OR that they need to do something that the structure of their lives means they will find very hard to do.

Remember, the population at large most resembles the ‘conflicted’ group in the above study. So, whose ‘evidence’ are they going to believe?

Well, “the research shows” that they will become converts to the ‘convenient truths‘.

By contrast, the evidence suggests that ‘inconvenient truths’ are a harder sell.

As unfashionable as the following suggestion has become, perhaps the left needs to take a leap of faith and base its policies on its ideology – and values – after all.

*Bastardi, A.; Uhlmann, E.L. & Ross, L. (2011). Wishful thinking: Belief, desire, and the motivated evaluation of scientific evidence. Psychological Science, 22(6): 731-732.

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2 Responses to Believing what you need to believe

  1. Pingback: Key’s approach won’t work “over time” | The Political Scientist

  2. 🙂

    I’m thinking that the left needs to base it’s policies/narratives on ideology which is informed by research, and that progressive arguments need to be centred around promoting and reinforcing this ideological position.

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