Believe it or not

 images-2by Karen Topakian

Beliefs.  We all have them. Whether they are religious, spiritual or political. We all believe in something.

Two recent sociological studies enlighten us about our beliefs. When we cling to them and when we don’t.

The first, a study from Ohio State University, examines how career dreams die.

When a group of Ohio State students were told that their GPA was too low to pursue their career goal, they didn’t give up the dream. In fact, their self-doubt declined and they showed higher levels of commitment to pursing the degree.

“We have a brilliant ability to spin, deflect or outright dismiss undesired evidence that we can’t do something,” Patrick Carroll co-author of the study said. “We try to find reasons to believe.”

When another group of Ohio State students were not only told that they didn’t have the grades or the skills to make their career goal a reality but that bad things could happen if they pursued their goals and failed, they abandoned their dream. They stopped believing. 

Who wouldn’t in the face of bad things happening?

The second study, “There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam and Inferred Justification” from the University of Buffalo demonstrated how we support our false beliefs.

Four major research institutions focused on “…one of the most curious aspects of the 2004 presidential election: the strength and resilience of the belief among many Americans that Saddam Hussein was linked to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.”

The study, “…argues that the primary cause of misperception in the 9/11-Saddam Hussein case was not the presence or absence of accurate data but a respondent’s desire to believe in particular kinds of information.”

In the world of sociology, this is known as “motivated reasoning” whereby people seek out information that confirms what they actually believe instead of searching for information that will either confirm or deny their beliefs.

Isn’t that why we listen to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!?

Because we were at war, voters searched for justification for that war by constructing elaborate rationalizations based on inaccurate information. When presented with the available evidence of the link between Saddam and 9/11 along with the evidence that there was no link, the voters were then pushed to justify their opinion. Respondents overwhelmingly stuck to their belief in support of the link.

“They wanted to believe in the link,” co-author Steven Hoffman, Ph.D. says, “because it helped them make sense of a current reality. So voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information, whether we think that is good or bad for democratic practice, does at least demonstrate an impressive form of creativity.”

If only we had known the results of the Ohio State study in 2004, we could have told those voters that bad things could happen to them if they clung to their false beliefs. But wait, it did. George Bush was re-elected and the war in Iraq continues.