If you read an article about a controversial issue, do you think you’d realise if it had changed your beliefs? No one knows your own mind like you do – it seems obvious that you would know if your beliefs had shifted. And yet a new paper in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that we actually have very poor “metacognitive awareness” of our own belief change, meaning that we will tend to underestimate how much we’ve been swayed by a convincing article.
The researchers Michael Wolfe and Todd Williams at Grand Valley State University said their findings could have implications for the public communication of science. “People may be less willing to meaningfully consider belief inconsistent material if they feel that their beliefs are unlikely to change as a consequence,” they wrote.
The researchers recruited over two hundred undergrads across two studies and focused on their beliefs about whether the spanking/smacking of kids is an effective form of discipline. The researchers chose this topic deliberately in the hope the students would be mostly unaware of the relevant research literature, and that they would express a varied range of relatively uncommitted initial beliefs.
The students reported their initial beliefs about whether spanking is an effective way to discipline a child on a scale from “1” completely disbelieve to “9” completely believe. Several weeks later they were given one of two research-based texts to read: each was several pages long and either presented the arguments and data in favour of spanking or against spanking. After this, the students answered some questions to test their comprehension and memory of the text (these measures varied across the two studies). Then the students again scored their belief in whether spanking is effective or not (using the same 9-point scale as before). Finally, the researchers asked them to recall what their belief had been at the start of the study.
The students’ belief about spanking changed when they read a text that argued against their own initial position. Crucially, their memory of their initial belief was shifted in the direction of their new belief – in fact, their memory was closer to their current belief than their original belief. The more their belief had changed, the larger this memory bias tended to be, suggesting the students were relying on their current belief to deduce their initial belief. The memory bias was unrelated to the measures of how well they’d understood or recalled the text, suggesting these factors didn’t play a role in memory of initial belief or awareness of belief change.
One big caveat is obviously that this research was about changes to mostly moderate beliefs – it’s likely the findings would be different in the context of changes to extreme or deeply held beliefs (this would be tricky to study because it will be more difficult to change these kind of beliefs). However, our beliefs on most topics are in the moderate range, and as we go about our daily lives reading informative material, these intriguing findings suggest we are mostly ignorant of how what we just read has updated and altered our own position.