In a world where alternative facts are a thing, researchers are interested more than ever by people who remain entrenched in their convictions – even when those convictions are entirely wrong.
Now, a new psychology study suggests that when people come across opinions that they agree with, they automatically and involuntarily process those opinions as facts.
Previous research has revealed that when it comes to changing minds, humans are notoriously intractable, and we undergo a whole bunch of mental gymnastics to make room for our pre-existing beliefs.
However, many of the psychological mechanisms that underlie this phenomenon are poorly understood. The new study was conducted to find out whether the process underlying opinion-confirmation can occur involuntarily.
Participants in the study were asked to make quick judgments based on the grammatical accuracy of 88 opinion statements. These opinions encompassed political issues, social issues and personal tastes, such as "The internet has made people more isolated."
Some of these statements were grammatically correct and some were not. The goal was for participants to decide as quickly as possible whether the grammar in the statement was correct.
Afterwards, the participants were asked to rate their own agreement with the opinion statements.
The findings reveal that people are much faster at identifying grammatically correct opinions when they agree with the opinion, compared to when they disagree with it.
The researchers concluded that humans have a "knee-jerk acceptance of opinions" that may explain our "remarkable ability to remain entrenched in [our] convictions."
The results build upon a similar phenomenon, called the Epistemic Stroop Effect, which finds that participants are much faster at verifying correct grammar in factual statements than non-factual statements.
The phenomenon suggests that when we are presented with a like-minded opinion, we process that opinion much faster than when we come across an opinion that we disagree with.
And, even when we are given a simple reading comprehension task, our pre-existing beliefs play a role in how we assess that information.
This is really similar to confirmation bias, which is when people actively favor, recall and cherry pick facts that confirm their worldview.
"The results demonstrate that agreement with a stated opinion can have a rapid and involuntary effect on its cognitive processing," the researchers said.
The researchers also examined the ability of participants to judge the subjectivity of opinion statements. Participants were asked to indicate whether the opinion indicated something positive or negative as fast as they could.
The researchers found that for statements people agreed with, they were much faster at answering "yes" when identifying if the statement was positive or negative.
For instance, if you had a deep distaste for coriander, and you were given the statement "coriander is disgusting," you would be much faster at agreeing that the statement was a positive one.
In other words, the participants were using their own beliefs and opinions to determine whether statements were factually correct.
"The current findings suggest that despite adults' understanding of the notion of subjectivity, they may react to opinion-incongruent statements as if they were factually incorrect," the researchers said.
"The distinction between factual truths and opinions held to be true is pivotal for rational discourse. However, this distinction may apparently be somewhat murky within human psychology."
The researchers said the new study adds to the "social psychologists' tool kit," which will hopefully allow psychologists to further expand our understanding of implicity held beliefs.
The study has been published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.