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Our Brains Automatically Register Opinions we Agree with as Fact

Posted April 22, 2018

Given the current state of politics in the world, researchers have been doubling down on research into what makes us barricade our thoughts and ideas from outside influence and the factors which drive ideological divides.

Much is already known about the variety of cognitive biases and logical fallacies that warp our thinking as soon as we step outside of practical everyday problem-solving, but the overall picture is still not quite complete.

Now, a new study by Michael Gilead at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, finds evidence of a rapid and involuntary mental process which kicks-in whenever we encounter opinions we agree with.

Past research has shown that our discernment of the factual accuracy of written text interacts with our judgement of spelling, whereby it takes less time to verify the correct spelling of factual statements, as opposed to non-factual ones (a pattern researchers dubbed the “Epistemic Stroop Effect”).

In the new study, comprised of four separate experiments, researchers composed 88 opinion statements that covered politics, personal tastes, and social issues, and gave them to a few dozen volunteers who were asked to assess the grammar as quickly as possible.

New study adds more fuel to the fire when it comes to debates regarding introspective accounts of our own rationality. Image credit: Nick Youngson, via, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The key finding was that subjects identified the grammatically correct statements more quickly when they agreed with the opinions expressed in them, suggesting the presence of an unconscious “filter” which operates in the background and is not “visible” to us.

“The results demonstrate that agreement with a stated opinion can have a rapid and involuntary effect on its cognitive processing”, wrote the researchers in their paper.

In the last experiment, participants were asked to identify whether a statement was indicating something positive or negative (e.g., “coriander is tasty” or “coriander is disgusting”). The results were in line with the previous three conditions.

“The current findings suggest that despite adults’ understanding of the notion of subjectivity, they may react to opinion-incongruent statements as if they were factually incorrect. The distinction between factual truths and opinions held to be true is pivotal for rational discourse. However, this distinction may apparently be somewhat murky within human psychology”.


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