Wednesday, October 10, 2012

This is GREAT!

This is the best example yet that the human brain is not rational or intentional.

So here is the study.  People walking through a public park were given a set of statements and asked to rate them on a 9-point scale for how much they agreed or disagreed.  The questions were about fundamental social values.  For example:

“Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be permitted as a means to combat international crime and terrorism.”

After completing 2-pages of these ratings, the person was asked to discuss the reasons behind their opinions for three of them.  But secretly, a “not” was added.  So if a person strongly agreed with the above statement, they were asked to explain why they strongly agreed with the opposite.  And because of the way it was done, it seemed as if they had really said this just a few seconds earlier.

About half of the respondents thought perhaps they had misread the question.  But for the other half, they were able to justify an opinion that was directly opposed to their real opinion.  They were able to come up with reasonable and personal rationales.

There are a few possible explanations for how this can happen. One I have talked about before – identity resonance. If you really thought that you had just rated the statement as a “strongly agree”, your brain wouldn’t allow you to contradict yourself and appear wishy-washy.  It would search for a reasonable explanation and convince yourself that it was a good one. 

The second explanation is that even strongly held social values are very contextually based.  Something might be right or wrong in one situation, but legitimately the opposite in another.  There are many examples.  Take pro-choice/pro-life.  How many people do you know that are pro-choice but against the death penalty – or vice versa?  I know these are not the same thing, but it highlights a kind of contradiction.  Or someone can be in favor of personal liberty when it comes to legalizing marijuana, but then against it for gun ownership (and again - or vice-versa).  So perhaps we had one context in mind when making the original rating, but when faced with the contradiction we bring to mind a context where we really do believe in the opposite.

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