September 19, 2016

Making beliefs unfalsifiable

You would think that people only hold beliefs based on their veracity but that is not the case. Of course, people do have beliefs because they think they are true but there are also other reasons for holding beliefs. Those reasons have to do with various psychological and social goals we have. Some examples of this are: wanting to see the world as orderly, meaningful and secure, viewing one's own group as morally good, feeling that you belong to a group, and having influence or power over other people.

Psychological reasons for having beliefs

This type of beliefs, to which people hold on, may come under pressure by objective findings which contradict them. When this happens, several strategies, conscious or unconscious, may be used to hold on anyway to these beliefs. Previous research has identified some of those strategies, such as: derogating the source, criticizing methods, using fallacious reasoning, biased perception, and simply avoiding the topic or ignoring the findings.

Making beliefs unfalsifiable

In a paper by Friesen, Campbell & Kay (2015) yet another strategy is identified: making beliefs unfalsifiable. In other words: making them impossible to disprove. Here is an example to illustrate what is meant by this. A falsifiable reason for following a religion might be: I believe because archeological evidence supports my religion. An unfalsifiable reason might be: I believe because I feel God's presence. Another example. A falsifiable reason to be against same-sex marriage is because children of same-sex parents would somehow grow up badly. An unfalsifiable reason would be: because it would be morally bad.

Friesen et al. show that making beliefs unfalsifiable has both offensive and defensive advantages for the cherished belief systems. The offensive advantage is that you can hold your beliefs even more strongly and more fiercely attack its opponents. The defensive advantage is that it makes your belief resistant against contradictory facts. In 4 experiments the researchers demonstrate that these offensive and defensive advantages indeed happen, both in a religious and in a political context.

Polarization and marginalization of science

The authors say that making beliefs unfalsifiable may not always be a bad thing. In some cases the individual might benefit by becoming less fearful while no negative effects for society happen. But they also point out that making beliefs unfalsifiable may have harmful effects on society. According to them, it might lead to polarization of groups and to the marginalization of science and the ignoring of scientific findings when they do not support one's beliefs.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that people do ignore facts and have difficulties listening to each other. Lack of validation for one's beliefs seems to be a large component in stagnating those beliefs instead of evolving them. A good example now is Syrian Refugees WILL have potential terrorists and Syrians ARE suffering greatly. Failure to validate both sides and incorporate both views into law seems to be a huge piece of stagnation. Perhaps a therapy skill could include validation, incorporation, and evolution of opinion.. not that the country would benefit from couples counseling or something....


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