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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

When Do We Consider Other Points of View?

A team of researchers has a new paper that looks at how we choose information about an issue when several options are available. The researchers studied the results from 91 past studies (like this one) and found that when we're presented with alternatives, we're two times more likely to select information that supports our pre-existing point of view than information that challenges it.
They also found that people are more resistant to new points of view when it comes to issues that are associated with political, religious, or ethical values. In these cases, "about 70 percent of the time you will choose information that corresponds with your views, versus about 60 percent of the time if the issues are not related to values," says University of Illinois psychologist Dolores AlbarracĂ­n, who worked on the study.
"For the most part," she adds, "it seems that people tend to stay with their own beliefs and attitudes because changing those might prevent them from living the lives they're living. But it's good news that one out of three times, or close to that, they are willing to seek out the other side."
It comes as little surprise that we tend to seek out opposing viewpoints when it helps us reach a goal or we have to defend our opinions in public. On the other hand, we're less likely to entertain opposing views when we're unsure of our own beliefs than when we're very confident, since choosing information that supports our view helps us validate our opinion and maintain a stable view of the world.
According to the researchers, we appear to be guided by two different motivations—a desire to feel validated and a desire to know the truth—both of which are important. As they explain in their paper:

It seems likely that these often antagonistic tendencies may compensate for the potential dangers of seeking only self-validating or accurate information. Whereas defense motivation facilitates psychological stability and personal validation, accuracy motivation promotes accurate perceptions of reality. Given current evidence, however, it appears that tendencies toward congeniality prevail.
Heather Wax