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A rumor started circulating back in 2008 that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. At the time, I was serving as chair of the Hawaii Board of Health. The director and deputy director of health, both appointed by a Republican governor, inspected Obama’s birth certificate in the state records and certified that it was real.
I would have thought that this evidence would settle the matter, but it didn’t. Many people thought the birth certificate was a fabricated document. Today, many people still believe that President Obama was not born in the U.S.
It can be especially hard to change certain beliefs that are central to your self-concept – that is, who you think you are. For example, if you believe you’re a kind person and you cut someone off in traffic, instead of thinking that maybe you’re not all that nice, it’s easier to think the other person was driving like a jerk.
This relationship between beliefs and self-concept can be reinforced by affiliations with groups like political parties, cults or other like-minded thinkers. These groups are often belief bubbles where the majority of members believe the same thing and repeat these beliefs to one another, strengthening the idea that their beliefs are right.
Researchers have found that people generally think they are more knowledgeable about certain issues than they really are. This has been demonstrated across a variety of studies looking at vaccinations, Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and even how toilets work. These ideas then get passed from person to person without being based on fact. For example, 70% of Republicans say they don’t believe the 2020 presidential election was free and fair despite a lack of any evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Belief bubbles and the defenses against cognitive dissonance can be hard to break down. And they can have important downstream effects. For instance, these psychological mechanisms affect the ways people have chosen whether or not to follow public health guidelines around social distancing and wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Changing people’s minds is difficult. Given the confirmation bias, evidence-based arguments counter to what someone already believes are likely to be discounted. The best way to change a mind is to start with yourself. With as open a mind as you can summon, think about why you believe what you do. Do you really understand the issue? Could you think about it in a different way?
As a professor, I like to have my students debate ideas from the side that they personally disagree with. This tactic tends to lead to deeper understanding of the issues and makes them question their beliefs. Give it an honest try yourself. You might be surprised by where you end up.