Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The power of vicarious experience

I find it curious how certain most of us are of our beliefs.  We all like to think of ourselves as basing our views of the world in reality; that we (and others who agree with us) are clear-headed, logical, perceiving the universe as it is -- and that because of that, our views won't change.

In reality, our attitudes are constantly shifting.  That even the most stubbornly doctrinaire amongst us can be pulled around unconsciously was just dramatically demonstrated by a lovely little experiment performed at Ohio State University.  (Source)

In this study, test subjects were given a passage to read, about a fictional character who was enduring adversity.  In one passage, the main character had to fight for his opportunity to cast his vote in an election; in another, a person is presented in a favorable light, and then at the end of the story is revealed to be a different ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation from the reader.  In each case, reading the story had a strong, and measurable, effect on the reader.  In the first instance, the test subjects who read the story about a man who overcame obstacles to participate in an election had a "significantly higher" likelihood of voting in the next election themselves; in the second, assessments given after reading the story resulted in more favorable attitudes toward the group in question, and a lower likelihood of stereotyping, as compared to a control group.

The researchers called this phenomenon "experience-taking."  We read a story, and in some way, we become the character about whom we are reading; we adopt his/her persona.  As a result, it becomes more appealing to do what the character does, and more difficult to stigmatize the members of the group to which the character belongs.

"Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes," said Geoff Kaufman, who led the study while he was a graduate student at Ohio State.  He is now a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College's Tiltfactor Laboratory. 

In each case, the effect was strongest when the story was told in first person, and when the main character was of a demographic most like that of the reader; for example, when the man who endured adversity to cast his vote was, like the test subject, a young male university student.  Third person stories, and ones where the demographic significantly differed from that of the reader, showed a lower -- but still measurable -- level of experience-taking.

"Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways," said Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.  "(It is) powerful because people don't even realize it is happening to them.  It's an unconscious process."

The findings of the study appear online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and will be published in a future print edition.

What I find most interesting about all of this is how fluid our perception of the world is.  That memory is plastic, and highly unreliable, has been known for years; the rather alarming discovery that our senses are quite capable of overlooking the obvious followed suit soon after, with such classic experiments as the "Gorilla in the Room" video clip.  But all through this, many of us have clung like grim death to the idea that at least our convictions stay the same; we believe what we believe until we choose, deliberately, to change it.  Kaufman and Libby's experiment show that, in fact, our views of those around us are as mushy as the rest of our brain.

And all of this, of course, has significant bearing on the current kerfuffle over whether or not Mitt Romney bullied a kid in high school.  I'm not going to address the truth or falsity of the claim; predictably, the Democrats say he did it, the Republicans claim it's a slanderous falsehood.  Myself, I don't care.  The idea that a 65 year old man somehow has gone for fifty years with his attitudes about gays, bullying, and fair treatment unchanged is absurd.  We are all, all of the time, adjusting our beliefs based upon those around us, what we see, what we hear, and what we read.  Far from being a sign of flip-flopping -- that dirtiest of the f-words in the political arena -- shifting our stance based upon circumstances is inevitable, and universal.

To be up front: I'm no fan of Romney's politics, for the most part, and anyone who knows me will vouch for the fact that I'm very far from being an Ann Coulter-style apologist for conservatives.  But I much more care about what a political candidate says, does, and believes now than I do about an incident from five decades ago.  Those who focus on such things are implying a patent falsehood -- that humans don't, or can't, change.

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