Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing and Vice Provost of Continuing and Professional Education and New Education Ventures at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written over 150 papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. He brings insights from cognitive science to a broader audience through his blogs at Psychology Today and Fast Company and his radio show/podcast Two Guys on Your Head. Art is the author of several books including Smart Thinking, Smart Change, Brain Briefs, and Bring Your Brain to Work.
Coherence, Belief Change, and Convincing Other People
The world changes rapidly, and yet people’s beliefs often don’t keep up. You might be puzzled, for example, why people’s attitudes about key world issues like the COVID-19 pandemic stay fixed even as new variants of the virus and other evidence become available.
Many psychological theories suggest people maintain their beliefs based on coherence. The attitudes people express reflect consistency across different experiences and knowledge sources. To this end, people give a lot of weight to information that is consistent with their current beliefs and they discount information that conflicts with those beliefs.
The desire to maintain consistency helps explain why people tend to be skeptical of things that contradict their beliefs, but are less critical of information that comports with their prevailing attitudes. It also explains why people don’t pay much attention to the negatives of options they want to select, even though they may recognize later that they should have considered them more carefully.
Because of this tendency toward coherence, it can feel fruitless to argue with people about their beliefs. Providing them with reasons why they should change their mind is rarely satisfying in the moment. Instead, people appear to dig their heels in.
There is value in having discussions with people you disagree with. Avoid pushing too hard—instead tell a story that weaves together the information that supports your attitudes. The more information you provide supporting an alternative viewpoint, the more weight you give to another coherent view of the world. As the weight of contradictory evidence grows, people may experience a sudden shift in which they now belief as fervently in the position they rejected as they recently believed in the view they now reject. It may not be satisfying for that belief change to happen out of sight, but it can be effective.