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Is there an objective reality, and are we capable of observing it?
On the day after Donald Trump officially became the US president, the then White House press secretary stated the crowd “was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration “. This was not the first time the president or people from his entourage were constructing a reality that was, shall we say, at odds with the facts – or indeed to advocate that this is as a good thing to do.
Last month an old tweet by his daughter and presidential adviser Ivanka was circulated widely. In it she apparently quotes Albert Einstein:
If that sounds an unlikely thing for the Nobel prize winning physicist to have said, that is because he did indeed never say anything of the kind. Unsurprisingly, there was widespread derision. It fitted perfectly in the mindset of alternative reality (or even ‘alternative facts’, a phrase made popular by Counsellor to the President, Kellyanne Conway) that seems to prevail in the White House. But are we perhaps not a bit quick in mocking others? How good are we in separating what we want to be true from what is objectively true?
Beliefs and desires
Anyone with a passing interest in behavioural economics (or who occasionally reads my writings) is most likely familiar with the confirmation bias, the tendency many people have to seek out evidence that confirms our prior beliefs, and ignore or dismiss evidence to the contrary. But Ben Tappin, a psychologist at Royal Holloway University in London, and colleagues suspected there was something else beyond simply the tendency to confirm our prior beliefs. We also appear to assign greater weight to information when it is desirable (irrespective of what we actually believe) – the so-called desirability bias.
Often, our beliefs and our desires or hopes coincide. We believe that we will find a good job after college, that our children will be healthy and smart, that we will climb the career ladder pretty swiftly, and so on. We also wish for all these things. Tappin et al designed an experiment in which they could separate the two, in the context of political beliefs.
In the 2016 US presidential election, they surmised, many Trump supporters believed that Clinton would win. New poll information that gave Clinton the advantage would be simultaneously confirming and undesirable, and polls indicating a win for Trump would simultaneously desirable and disconfirming. In either case, desirability bias and confirmation bias would have opposite effects.
By providing the participants in their study with selective, but real poll outcomes, they could control whether they received information that was either consistent or inconsistent with their desire, or their belief of who would win the election.
And they did indeed find a robust desirability bias effect. People tended to incorporate information significantly more if it was consistent with the desired outcome, and this was independent of their prior beliefs. For example, people who wanted Trump to win but who believed Clinton would win, were significantly more confident of a Trump win after they were given poll information boosting Trump’s chances. But with the same information, people who wanted Clinton to win but who believed Trump would win, made much smaller adjustments to their confidence level.
In another paper, Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay at Duke University explore what could explain the widespread public distrust of the scientific consensus, e.g. in climate change. There has been intensive communication stating the statistical evidence and proposing government policies, like Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. How come this failed to resonate with the (largely conservative) climate change ‘deniers’?
Conservatives have been found to be more sensitive to scary information. Perhaps that motivates them to deny climate due to a stronger fear of the consequences? But the researchers started from a different hypothesis. They proposed that aversion of the consequences of the proposed solutions, rather than fear of the problem, motivates scepticism of the scientific evidence.
In their experiment, they first gave participants the scientific consensus on global temperature increase by the end of the 21st century as held by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Then the participants were asked to evaluate a proposed policy measure, after which they had to indicate whether or not they agreed with the IPCC’s prediction.
If the proposed solution was new government regulation, like a carbon tax, only 22% of Republican-leaning agreed that temperatures would rise by at least the IPCC’s predicted value of a 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit rise. But when the policy option emphasized the role of a free market (e.g. innovative green technology), the proportion of Republicans in agreement with the IPCC was 55%. For Democrat-leaning participants, the choice of policy measure made no significant difference to their stated belief (68% in agreement).
Is this kind of solution aversion a typically conservative phenomenon? The researchers conducted a similar study, in which they explored people’s perception of the severity of the problem of violent home break-ins. And indeed, here participants with more liberal ideologies (i.e. favouring tighter control on the possession of fire arms) were much more likely to downplay the problem if the proposed solution called for looser gun control.
They concluded that, irrespective of a person’s politics or ideology, the more threatening a solution is to them, the more likely they are to deny the problem.
A reality for everyone
We are often good at noticing and calling out the tendency of others to interpret the world in a subjective way. If we want to be unkind to them, we say they are living in an alternative reality. Even if we don’t say so explicitly, we imply that we ourselves are much better at seeing the world as it really is.
As the research suggests, that is likely to be a case of illusory superiority, though. We are often unduly influenced by what we want to be true (or untrue). We tend to adapt the size of a problem according to how much we like the solution.
Perhaps not all of us go so far as Ivanka Trump suggests, and change the actual facts to fit our assumptions. But we had better be aware that we are shaping our own subjective reality.