“Why Won’t People Listen to Good Ideas?” discussed research showing that those with strongly ingrained views won't mentally process sound evidence presented by the other side. Is there anything we can do to encourage our colleagues to consider solid facts we raise?
First, it’s important to understand why many won’t listen. One reason became apparent in a series of studies starting in 1959. Eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson explains that research began in a southern town deeply divided over racial segregation. Most today clearly recognize the evils of apartheid, but in 1959 it was a burning issue, particularly in the South. Researchers selected people with strong feelings for or against segregation. Then they presented a series of arguments on both sides of the issue. Some were plausible, others were lame. A survey on the points each recalled was telling. People remembered the logical arguments supporting their position and the illogical arguments that backed the opposing view.
A number of follow up studies produced similar results. The answer was clear. People ignored or quickly forgot points that might prove their opinion wrong. They focused on the opposition’s lame arguments because these strengthened their position. This phenomenon is called Confirmation Bias. Seeking the right answer took a back seat to proving they were right. The highly respected Dr. Aronson explains:
During the past half-century, social psychologists have discovered that one of the most powerful determinants of human behavior stems from our need to preserve a stable, positive self-image. Most of us want to believe that we are reasonable, decent folks who make wise decisions, do not behave immorally and have integrity.
Thus, when confronted with factual information that might show us mistaken or foolish, we automatically tend to ignore or dismiss it, focusing instead on any piece of data that might prove us right.