If you’re reading this, you’re probably rather smart. No, no, don’t be modest: whatever your supposed ‘academic ability’, you’re on a blog about science, reading about real research findings. That means you care. I don’t know what you care about, but when I look at people, the ones who stand out are the ones who care enough to engage, read, look, think. Like you!
That’s why I feel that you’re ready for an unfortunate truth.It isn’t about politics, or media, or industry. Not directly, at least. It’s about you. Like I said, you’re clever. You think things through. However, your history betrays you. Over thousands of generations, the way you think has been shaped by countless forces. Those forces have left their imprints hard-wired into you. And they make you susceptible to invisible enemies.
Take, for instance, self-affirmation. It’s a concept I’ve stumbled upon recently, which seems to make sense. Basically, it goes like this: when your beliefs or world view is threatened in some way, you’re likely to respond defensively. However, if you are able to affirm another part of your world-view positively, you are likely to be less defensive in the first instance.
Let me give an example. I have a couple of closely held beliefs; say, the need for environmental protection and the idea that rock is better than hip-hop music. If someone approached me and started telling me outright that hip-hop was better than rock, I’d probably have a few stern things to say in response.
However, if I first had a chat with the person and found that we agreed about environmental protection, I’m likely to be more open about their preference for hip-hop. Sure, I might not be persuaded, but there’s a strong chance I would at least carry a productive conversation.
Put in that context, self-affirmation doesn’t sound particularly profound. It’s not just whether someone agrees with you, though. It can just be a simple reminder of self-worth (like, uh, the start of this post). However, as shown in a study by Cohen et al. (2000) it can moderate two very strong obstacles to accepting new evidence: resistance to persuasion and confirmation bias (i.e. filtering out information you don’t agree with).
There’s a reasonable amount of research on this, and some of it is quite cool. Self-affirmation is most effective if it happens before someone is challenged. That makes sense. But how about the idea that people engage in more advocacy about their ideas when they feel they’ve been challenged? Perhaps, in the situation above, I’d turn around to the person next to me and ask, “So, you like rock music, right? The Rolling Stones make N.W.A. look like a bunch of little brats.” Simple in that context, but when you look at fervent religious preachers at evangelical mega-churches, you have to wonder what’s going on in their heads!
I’m sure you can think of times when you’ve chatted with someone happily for a while, then suddenly found out they disagree with your stance on a major topic. In those cases, self-affirmation could well be at work: if you agree with some of what they say, you’re more open to their alternative positions too.
It also can inform us about effective ways to communicate. A direct challenge is unlikely to be met positively. However, looking for common ground – or simply even paying a compliment – can provide a window of opportunity in which to engage on an otherwise polarised idea. On the flipside, it’s a big part of why we are so susceptible to manipulative messages, both in person and in the media. It provides a back door into your world view that the unscrupulous can exploit.
So, having prepared you, I’ll open up the hard question now: rock or hip-hop, and why?
Cohen, G., Aronson, J., & Steele, C. (2000). When Beliefs Yield to Evidence: Reducing Biased Evaluation by Affirming the Self Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26 (9), 1151-1164 DOI: 10.1177/01461672002611011