Why do our opinions not matter

Facts don't matter

Cognitive dissonance ensures that we do not even notice political counter-arguments. How then is an open debate possible?

My extended family on my mother's side has a WhatsApp group that is occasionally lively. Especially when we make the mistake of not turning political issues around. A few months ago I had the following exchange with a dear uncle.

What happened? My uncle has a very strong opinion. The Telepolis article, which I gave him perfidiously, proves that he is wrong. My uncle doesn't like that any more than any other person would have liked it. The new information therefore causes a condition that psychologists call "cognitive dissonance". And he reacts to it like from a textbook: The incompatible information becomes completely irrational ad hominem-Argument invalidated. The worldview is saved.

The grapes are sour!

Cognitive dissonance occurs on many occasions. In its simplest form, it interferes with reading during the Stroop test: we read color words that mean a different color than the color in which they are printed more slowly and with more errors. Not only our perceptions, but also our preferences can trigger an internal conflict. Aesop already knew this when he came up with the fable of the fox and the sour grapes. Scientists call the phenomenon "choice-induced preference change".

In the experiment, the test subjects are first asked to evaluate a number of options in the same category - e.g. different foods. How much do you like sushi, broccoli, chocolate pudding, tripe soup? Then they are given a choice. Sometimes the choice is easy because the two foods were rated very differently. Sometimes difficult because the rating was almost the same. But you have to make a decision.

Rejecting something that one actually likes - at least as much as the alternative - is difficult. It causes cognitive dissonance: I like it, but I don't want it. The result can be observed in the subsequent, renewed survey: Those options that were rejected in difficult decisions now rank significantly lower in preference. If I've decided against the Thai curry, then, something in me concludes, I don't like it that much either.

This effect is also interesting for the so-called neuro-economists, as it undermines the ideal of the rationally decisive homo economicus. He should base his decisions on his preferences. In fact, it is also the other way around.

How the rating is changed can even be observed in the brain: rejected alternatives activate the nucleus accumbens, the so-called "reward center", later more weakly than before. So they are rated or perceived as less tempting. The same study also found that the greater the cognitive dissonance, the more active areas of the frontal lobe were. This applied, among other things, to the lateral frontal lobe, which has to do with self-control and moral decisions. It has to work to get the internal justification processes running again.

Politics is serious

Nevertheless, we do not immediately jump out of our skin when we have to choose between lasagna and gado-gado, or assume the cook has anti-Semitic attitudes. Food is not that important to most of us. It looks very different when it comes to politics. Whether I support military operations or reject Agenda 2010 is much deeper anchored in my self-image than my stance on truffle butter.

As a result, we defend our political convictions much more bitterly than those that have nothing to do with politics. In a study, the test subjects first indicated the degree of agreement with a series of statements. Some of them were political: "The US should reduce its military budget", others were not: "The main purpose of sleep is rest for the mind and body." While they were lying in a magnetic resonance tomograph, they were then presented with five counter-arguments, whereupon they finally had to re-quantify their agreement to the allegations.

After the challenge, the subjects were on average less convinced of all statements than before, but the difference was much greater for the apolitical claims. Political convictions are very reluctant to reveal. Because they sit deep in the self-image. This was evident in the brain: while the counter-arguments to apolitical beliefs, as well as the above-mentioned culinary decision, activated the lateral frontal lobe, the objections to political convictions aroused lively activity in the so-called idle state network. And that is precisely the set of cortical regions that have been believed to construct the "self" since its discovery.

The fact that it is unpleasant, even downright nauseating, when others attack this self-image, was also reflected in brain activity. It was higher in the amygdala - the fear center - and in the insular cortex - which has to do with inner perception and disgust - the more firmly the test subjects clung to a belief.

That backfired

Not everyone rules like a stung tiger when their political views are called into question. Some people have a very rigid construction of reality, others a somewhat looser one. That was also evident in the study. The willingness of a test subject to change his or her opinion on political matters correlated positively with how easily he abandoned the apolitical assumptions. Apparently this was not a property of the statements, but one of the test subjects.

In fact, people can only be influenced by arguments in their opinion if that opinion is not very strong. One study presented its subjects with bogus newspaper articles containing, for example, the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or (for the "liberal" readers) G.W. Bush banned stem cell research.

Some of the articles contained a correction. However, this only had an effect on readers who were already politically attuned accordingly. Those who described themselves as very conservative continued to believe in Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and very left-wing liberal participants insisted that Bush had banned this type of research. And what's more: These people didn't just stick with it - they even strengthened their convictions! The correction backfired.

A recent study that had Republican and Democratic supporters fed Twitter messages from the other side found something similar: After the intervention, they were more polarized than before. Anyone who defines himself strongly by his ideology responds to counter arguments with defiance.

And even if arguments have an impact, they fail to change behavior: In a follow-up study, parents were asked about their attitudes towards the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination. Then they were presented with different materials which were supposed to convince them of the benefits and the harmlessness of the vaccination. In fact, the message got through that vaccinations had nothing to do with autism - but the strongest opponents of vaccination saw their intention not to vaccinate their children nonetheless.

Preaching deaf ears

These results are a bitter cold pour for the ideal of an enlightened society. We would like to resolve our disagreements peacefully and rationally in an open debate. It is part of the self-image of our liberal, tolerant society that we do this. And because it is a matter of course, society will probably continue to believe in it. But it is true: we want to clarify our differences of opinion rationally if and only if the other person then takes over our opinion.

The Dilbert creator Scott Adams also runs a blog (or led, because unfortunately he switched to podcasts). It was worth reading in the months before and after the last US presidential election. Adams endeavored to understand the perceptions of reality in the two major political camps and to make them understandable. Even the habit of a classic one liberal, he mutated into a Trump supporter out of disgust at the self-righteousness of the Democrats.

According to Adams, Trump has grasped a fundamental insight: "Facts don't matter." It is not facts that determine a decision, but feelings. (How right Adams is can be seen in any political article on Spiegel Online. The PARTY demand "overcome content" is implemented in an exemplary manner.) For Adams, a successful politician is a "master persuader", one who is aware of the facts freely improvised undisturbed on the emotional keyboard of his electorate. Adams seems to overlook the fact that facts may be irrelevant to decision-making, but not necessarily to their outcome.

Proximity instead of debate

Certainly it is better to use arguments to resolve disagreements than machine guns. But neither is convincing. Instead, the memory of Paul Feyerabend bursts out of the box like a devil. In consistent relativism, he raised the question of whether our humanistic preference for reasons before grenades was not just another value judgment that could not be further substantiated. The value judgment of those who know how to handle arguments more skillfully than with their fists.

Doesn't the one who fights with sharp words also strive for the submission and social annihilation of the opponent? Is the intellectual morally superior just because he is an asparagus, but clever? "At them with a roar - and with good arguments" is the treacherous title of Haznain Kazim's book, which Spiegel Online is currently promoting.

The solution to this dilemma may then be to renounce the fight altogether. Ultimately, it rarely serves the purpose of pushing through a supposedly good cause, but only the hardening of fronts and self-exaltation of the fighting. At least as long as there is a dispute in the family about whether governments decide in the interests of the majority of the population or whether Assad is being fought by democratic rebels - as long as it is completely irrelevant to the fate of the world who wins the debate or whether anyone at all. It is not about overthrowing the government or Assad, but only about a triumph within four walls. There are more important things.

Anyone who wants to change a person's attitude will not achieve anything with arguments. Not even with violence. What seems to work, however, is the basic exercise of putting yourself in the shoes of the other - the change of perspective. US citizens were then more likely to be persuaded - and in the long term - that transsexuals should be respected and legally protected if campaigners engaged them in a brief conversation at their doorstep and asked them to remember an opportunity that was themselves had been degraded or discriminated against.

In a similar study, more respondents were motivated to write a letter to the US president in support of Syrian refugees who had previously put themselves in their position ("Imagine if you had to leave your home because of a war? What would you do?" Take you with you? Where would you flee? What would be the biggest problems? ").

The change of perspective works even better - or is perhaps also simplified - if the conversation partner represents the other side himself. Advertisers who came out as transident achieved even greater support for their concerns (although the study design apparently prevented a statistical analysis).

And at least until last year when the study was published, US citizens' attitudes towards the police improved when they were visited by officers at home and engaged in friendly conversation. "Let's protect the police!" Georg Kreisler sang. Perhaps someone now comes up with the idea of ​​involving the police in a friendly conversation with black people.

It is not arguments, but encounters that break up prejudices and enmities. It has been well documented for decades that contact with members of other groups shrinks prejudices. Anyone who deals with people of different skin color and religion on a daily basis does not fear them. Racism, on the other hand, is rampant where you don't even know foreigners. "I don't want to meet someone like that!" a neighbor in Thuringia once exclaimed in horror when the conversation with my wife turned to Turks. She hadn't even realized that she was speaking to a Turkish Kurd. And another acquaintance suddenly complained in a conversation with my wife: "The Turks and the Jews are the worst!" The only Turk she probably knew was Murat from the kebab shop in Apolda, and he didn't hurt her. How she came across Jews will remain an eternal mystery to me. She certainly (Apolda!) Never met anyone.

We are not rational machines of judgment, but humans. This can also be seen positively: togetherness, closeness and human warmth are more important to us - at least to many of us - than the truth, this unapproachable ice queen. That is why our extended family meets regularly. I look forward to seeing my uncle again, that charming concrete head. (Konrad Lehmann)

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