By Alex Fradera
Imagine it: you’re happily surfing through your social media feeds – or what we nowadays call your filter bubble – when some unexpected perspectives somehow manage to penetrate. After you “like” the latest critique of police power, for instance, you come across an article arguing that cracking down on crime can benefit minority neighborhoods. Or, elbowing its way into a crowd of articles celebrating trickle-down economics, you encounter a study showing higher taxes boost growth. What happens next? In new research in Contemporary Educational Psychology, Gregory Trevors and his colleagues looked at how reading conflicting information can push our emotional buttons, and lead us either towards resistance or a chance to learn.
Nearly three hundred students from various Canadian and American universities first indicated their “epistemic beliefs” – that is, their beliefs about how knowledge comes about, such as whether facts are eternal or open to question. Next they read a series of texts on climate change, ordered in a way to maximize dissonance. To begin, an article emphasised anthropogenic change due to human-produced climate gases. To follow, an article emphasised how climate change has been greatly shaped by astronomical causes beyond our control. This “natural cycles” take was then upended by an article on catastrophic consequences of the current climate trend, and then one final switcheroo – a description of how rising temperatures will produce some global opportunities.
After each article, the participants indicated how strongly they felt emotions like frustration, confusion or surprise. At the end, each participant had to synthesise what they had got out of the texts by writing a short summary, which was analysed by text-matching algorithms and human judges to see when participants were prepared to integrate controversial texts, and when they preferred to stick to a simple narrative.
Different beliefs about knowledge led to different emotional reactions, and to different ways of handling the text. For example, for readers who said they believed you can’t verify knowledge based on gut feelings, but need to contrast and compare across many sources, the jarring text on astronomical causes of climate change led to greater feelings of surprise and curiosity. In turn, these feelings appeared to motivate them to take in this new information as shown by the way their summaries acknowledged multiple viewpoints.
Meanwhile, the participants who endorsed the idea that knowledge comes to us as food does to baby birds, offered by an authority figure for our easy digestion, felt confused when faced with the prospect of multiple authorities. Confusion makes it harder to take in and remember information, and this appeared to take place here, as these participants’ summaries turned out to be more monotone and lacked reference to the controversial information.
Not every belief turned out to have the expected effect – in particular, believing that knowledge is certain, led participants to experience less surprise, not more, when confronted with contradictions. The researchers speculated that perhaps these participants simply hadn’t engaged with the text enough to take in its implications.
Although we shouldn’t allow our models of the world to be battered around by every spurious claim, the intelligent approach is to acknowledge credibly sourced evidenced-based arguments – especially those that dissent from the dominant narrative. This research shows us how this process can be obstructed by how we feel, and suggests two solutions for educators and influencers. The first is to anticipate the likely reactions to this specific argument: consider where and how your audience might be disengaging due to their emotional feelings and shape your message to redress this. The second is to try to shift how people actually think about knowledge itself, by referencing the robust evidence underlying your claims, linking to counter-evidence and explicitly weighing different sources. You won’t always win minds on the specific argument, but you might open minds, to the benefit of all the conversations to come.