UNCHANGING OPINIONS: New evidence that people tend to hold on to biased beliefs even if new information proves them wrong

Once people are committed to an opinion, they are very reluctant to incorporate new information that challenges their views. A desire for consistency causes beliefs to ‘stick’ even if they are demonstrably wrong.

These are the key findings from a laboratory experiment conducted by Armin Falk and Florian Zimmermann, both researchers at the briq Institute on Behavior & Inequality and the University of Bonn. Their study is published in the August 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.

Many people overestimate their intelligence, moral behaviour or driving skills. Some doubt that climate change is man-made, while others have wrong perceptions about the crime rate among refugees and immigrants.

A puzzle that the researchers try to disentangle is how such biased beliefs can prevail in the age of information, where modern life provides us with an abundance of information about the world and ourselves.

For their experiment conducted at the BonnEconLab, the experimental economics laboratory at the University of Bonn, Falk and Zimmermann asked about 650 students to form a belief in the context of an estimation task. The closer the students’ estimate to the correct solution, the higher their monetary reward.

At some point during the experiment, the participants received a piece of information concerning the correct solution to the task. The key question was to what extent they would take this piece of information into account and revise their own estimate accordingly.

Strikingly, students who were asked to state a first opinion prior to receiving the piece of information took account of the new information to a lesser extent– resulting in a 67% larger deviation of their estimate from the correct solution – compared with those who were not asked to make such a statement.

The researchers thus conclude that writing down an opinion – or expressing it to others in some other form – raises resistance to incorporating additional information.

The results from different variations of the experiment suggest that this resistance is most plausibly explained by a desire to behave consistently over time. Florian Zimmermann says:

‘After taking a stance on a certain topic, people find it very difficult to revise their opinion, lest they appear inconsistent.’

In the real world, expressing an opinion or belief cannot just occur through explicit statements, but also more indirectly, as Armin Falk explains:

‘The perception of being committed to an opinion can just as well arise from actions that clearly reflect that opinion – for example, buying a climate-friendly car.’

These findings have important implications for the design of institutions such as the procedures used by committees or juries. For example, if commitments on a certain opinion or intention are requested at an intermediate stage, final decisions may not reflect the full level of available information.

Information Processing and Commitment’ by Armin Falk and Florian Zimmermann is published in the August 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.