Why Our Brains Say “Yes” When the Facts Say “No”

If you’re an employer trying to motivate your workers, how do you get past their biases to get everyone on the same page, or at least rowing in the same direction? Psychologists suggest that, rather than taking on people’s surface attitudes and beliefs directly, tailor messages so that they align with their motivation.

Using vaccinations as an example, everyone agrees that deadly diseases exist, that they are bad, and that people are getting sick and dying from them. By exploring what happens when people resist vaccinating themselves or their children – the very real possibility that those adults or children will either get sick themselves or be a carrier who gets another child or person sick – and by examining statistics from reliable sources, we can “agree to disagree,” but still make a decision based on logic and the well-being of those around us.

That same thinking can be applied to getting employees to work together toward a common cause or goal. Influential people – leaders, both natural or by ranking in the workplace – can sway opinion. People want to be accepted, recognized, and considered a valuable part of a team. By looking for the things we have in common, listening to differing opinions, recognizing how people make decisions and then finding solutions and compromises, we become more effective leaders.

It isn’t entirely our fault that we err to the side of comfort. Based on scientific research, our brains protect us, validating information that supports our biases, often to the point of denigrating the information with which we disagree, accepting compatible information that makes us feel better – or which supports our beliefs – almost at face value. Scientists link this to our innate “fight or flight” response, with the twist being we may choose to fight by latching on to what we want to believe, in essence, “taking flight” from the truth to protect our opinions.

Psychologists have identified key factors that can cause people to reject science – and it has nothing to do with how educated or intelligent they are. In fact, researchers found that people who reject scientific consensus on topics such as climate change, vaccine safety, and evolution are generally just as interested in science and as well-educated as the rest of us. It’s just that they think more like lawyers than scientists, meaning they “cherry pick” the facts and studies that back up what they already believe is true.

As hard as this is to believe, or to understand, the rationale for this behavior often comes down to a simple, though troubling truth: No matter how irrefutable the evidence is, many people reject anything which contradicts their deeply entrenched false belief.

How they arrive at their false belief often has to do with how they are raised, religious doctrine, political leaning and their willingness to accept and believe information from powerful or confident people. Oftentimes, people would rather think they are right, even if they’re wrong. It becomes a tug of war between ego, self-esteem, long-held beliefs and the desire to stick with something that meshes with your own way of seeing the world, even if facts refute or contradict your opinion.

Over 90 percent of our decisions are made at an unconscious level. Brain imaging has shown that when the brain inputs data, the emotional centers light up first (what does this mean to me?), followed by the logic centers (what do I do with it?). This means that ‘facts’ are what people use to validate decisions already made at an unconscious level.

For example, if someone believes that vaccinations aren’t safe, they will ignore the hundreds of medical studies that support vaccination safety and glom onto the one study they can find that casts doubt. These phenomena are known as cognitive bias – people treat facts as more relevant when those facts tend to support their opinions. They may not totally deny facts that contradict their beliefs, but they will say that those facts are “less relevant.”

Our brains tend to easily accept information compatible with what we already know, and minimize information that contradicts what we already know, or believe we know. The information goes into our brain, but the importance our mind allots to these facts and information is being weighted unconsciously in favor of those bits of data that already fit our preconceptions. Our brains unconsciously diminish their importance, regardless of the truth or facts, and since they are perceived as “less important,” these facts or truths quickly fade from memory.



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