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rejecting uncommon beliefs

how worldview shapes our experience

by Marylin Schlitz

As the legendary philosopher John Locke once said: “New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”


What limits our desire and capacity to take in new ideas – even when we hold an intention to transform and grow? How can we shift a paradigm that we see as flawed and incomplete without understanding the barriers to changing our minds and behaviors? And how can we develop habits that allow us to explore and reveal our own biases and intolerance of ideas that refute our prevailing beliefs and opinions? These are tricky questions, but ones that are lighting up many science labs around the world.

New discoveries and new thinking in neuroscience, social psychology, and anthropology offer provocative insights into the barriers to transformation. They show us that our views of reality are embedded largely in our unconscious mind. Operating below the threshold of our conscious awareness, our beliefs and assumptions shape our experience – even while we’re busy making other plans.

Recent studies within the realm of science suggests that facts do not exert as much influence on our opinions as our deeply engrained emotional convictions. Research from the Cultural Cognition Project (CCP), a Yale Law School initiative, found, for example, that policy and public perceptions, such as those around climate change or nanotechnology, are shaped by cultural beliefs more than scientific data.

In one experiment, Don Braman and his colleagues at CCP divided people into two cultural values-based groups: “individualistic” or “communitarian.” The research team presented both groups with identical content about nanotechnology, something the participants knew little about. According to Breman, the fact that people were presented with negative or positive information did not impact the fact that they rejected the contradictory information while recalling the data that supported their preexisting values. Their worldview shapes their model of reality.

Another study helps understand why this is so. Kevin Dunbar and Jonathan Fugelsanj, researchers from Dartmouth College, have discovered that a resistance to new information may actually be hardwired into our brains. When confronted with dissonant data that contradicts what we expect to see, even trained scientists appear to reject information that goes against their assumptions about how the world works.

Using the sophisticated brain-mapping tools of fMRI, the researchers discovered in testing their scientist-subjects that when presented with contradictions and errors, their brains triggered activity in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), the section largely associated with perception. This process is important for editing out false information, but it also inhibited the ability to retain correct information that went against the subject’s prevailing scientific assumptions. At the same time, another portion of the scientists’ brains, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), suppressed unwanted information that didn’t jive with their preexisting theories. When triggered, this area of the brain can actually cause an individual to delete contradictory information from their awareness.

This can be a serious problem for scientists who are charged with the discovery of new knowledge about life. It is also a problem for the rest of us, who seek to expand our horizons or maintain an open mind. These experiments reveal a truth about human nature: belief blinds us to alternative points of view and can even lead to dogmatic assertions about things we know nothing about. The data call for humility to question our deepest assumptions. As the author James Michener remarked: “An age is called dark, not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.




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