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Why People are Convinced Their Right Even When They are Wrong

In lecturers I often discuss how the emotional brain takes the big decisions or hijacks the rational brain without us being aware of it. Even when we hear evidence which directly contradicts our cherished beliefs we can still want to hold on to them ever firmer in an attempt to preserve our sense of being right. This is not a rational process. Rather it is the emotional attachments to the ideas, and the emotional threat of them being wrong that drives this response. In short, being wrong feels emotionally painful and preserving the belief eases this pain but become increasingly dogmatic in the process.

Research has shown people differ in tier responses to this. For example Jonathan Haidt's work has identified different moral positions between the politically Left and the Right (see my Video page). Recently though two studies were published examining the personality characteristics that drive dogmatism in both religious and nonreligious people. In both groups, higher critical reasoning skills were associated with lower levels of dogmatism. But these two groups diverge in how moral concern influences their dogmatic thinking."It suggests that religious individuals may cling to certain beliefs, especially those which seem at odds with analytic reasoning, because those beliefs resonate with their moral sentiments," said Jared Friedman, a PhD student in organizational behavior and co-author of the studies."Emotional resonance helps religious people to feel more certain -- the more moral correctness they see in something, the more it affirms their thinking," said Anthony Jack, associate professor of philosophy and co-author of the research. "In contrast, moral concerns make nonreligious people feel less certain."

The researchers say the results of the surveys lend further support to their earlier work showing people have two brain networks -- one for empathy and one for analytic thinking -- that are in tension with each other. In healthy people, their thought process cycles between the two, choosing the appropriate network for different issues they consider.

But in the religious dogmatist's mind, the empathetic network appears to dominate while in the nonreligious dogmatist's mind, the analytic network appears to rule. While the studies examined how differences in worldview of the religious vs. the nonreligious influence dogmatism, the research is broadly applicable, the researchers say. Dogmatism applies to any core beliefs, from eating habits -- whether to be a vegan, vegetarian or omnivore -- to political opinions and beliefs about evolution and climate change. To read the study click here.

An interesting TED talk by Julia Galaf on the same subject can be found here.

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