These days, it seems like there’s more arguing over what counts as a “fact” and what counts as an “opinion” than should ever be necessary. Well, we have bad news. The trouble doesn’t start with “fake news” — it starts in your brain.
We already know that your interpretation of facts can vary wildly depending on your beliefs. Confirmation bias and the backfire effect are always going to shape the way you interact with your world. But according to a new report on a phenomenon known as involuntary opinion confirmation, you might have a hard time sorting out the facts in the first place. That’s because when your brain is exposed to an opinion it agrees with, it automatically slips it into the “facts” folder of your mental filing cabinet.
It all comes down to the Stroop effect. If the name of a color is printed in a different color — the word “green” printed in orange, for example — your brain will often struggle to name the color of the ink. It’s already been filed into the “green” category, and it’s hard to shift gears and re-categorize it as “orange.” In this study, led by Anat Maril at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, participants showed that the same thing is true when it comes to analyzing the truth of a statement.
See, the Stroop effect has a corollary known as the epistemic Stroop effect. When people are asked to correct the spelling or grammar of written statements, they’re faster at saying factual statements are written correctly than they are false ones. And as it turns out, the same is true of opinions they agree with. All the researchers had to do was give them a grammar test full of opinions like “The internet has made people more isolated” or “The internet has made people more sociable,” time their responses, and ask later about which of the opinions they most agreed with. Their brains responded to the opinions they agreed as if they were undeniable facts.
One other test the researchers performed was to have the participants identify opinion statements like “Coriander (cilantro) is tasty” or “Coriander is disgusting” as either positive or negative, pressing “yes” for positive and “no” for negative. They were quicker to say “yes” to opinions they shared, regardless of whether the statements were positive or negative. Again, that suggests that people are generally primed to respond in the affirmative to subjective information they agree with.
That could be a major roadblock to a rational argument if you’re not watching out for it. The good news is, the study also demonstrated a new tool for psychologists to use when they’re on the lookout for information biases. Want to see where the biases lie in a certain population? Just see which questions they’re fastest at answering.
Check out my related post: Can you get rid of the bias in your head?