by Jay J. Van Bavel
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We’ve all heard of situations where people refuse to change their minds, no matter what the evidence suggests.
What motivates such irrational stubbornness?
In the 1950s, Leon Festinger joined a cult known as the “Seekers.”
The Seekers had recently been warned by aliens that on December 21, 1954, a massive flood would swamp the Western Seaboard of the United States.
They published this prophecy in the local newspaper.
Festinger thought the prophecy was nonsense. But he wanted to understand how people responded when their worldview came crashing down.
There was no massive flood on December 21, 1954. When the Seekers realized their prophecy had failed, one cult member began crying. The others sat in stunned silence.
The seekers were experiencing cognitive dissonance: the deep discomfort that arises when one’s beliefs and identity are called into question.
To reduce this discomfort, we can respond in one of two ways.
So what are the factors that cause us to cling to our beliefs far longer than we should?
Here are two:
If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct.
And beyond mere solidarity of numbers, our social groups give us something else too: a sense of “belonging.”
The need to “belong” is a powerful motivator — many of us will even support group beliefs that go against our own interests to maintain our group identity.
Thus, when beliefs we hold align with our identity and the identities of our social groups, we’ll hold onto them, as long as we can.
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