In a world where “post-truth” was 2016’s word of the year, many people are starting to doubt the efficacy of facts. Can science make sense of anti-science and post-truthism? More generally, how can we understand what drives people’s beliefs, decisions, and behaviors?
Scientists have developed many theories to describe how people process and think about information. Unfortunately, there’s an increasing tendency to see people as creatures whose reasoning mechanisms are largely dependent on a narrow set of processes. For example, one popular theory suggests that if we just communicate more accurate information to people, their behavior will change accordingly. Another suggests that people will reject evidence if it threatens their deeply held cultural worldviews and associated feelings.
It’s more important than ever that our approach to communication is evidence-based and built on a strong, theoretical foundation. Many of these models contribute valuable insights and can help us design better communication, but each on its own is incomplete. And science communicators have a tendency to oversimplify, focusing on a single model and disregarding other theories.
We suggest that this is a dangerous practice and less effective than a more nuanced and holistic view. The apparent choice between “fact” and “feeling,” or between “cognition” and “culture,” is a false dilemma. In reality, both are related and address different pieces of the decision-making puzzle.
Thinking versus feeling
One well-known theory about how people absorb new facts is the “information deficit model.” The main idea here is straightforward: If you throw more facts at people, they’ll eventually come around on an issue.
Most behavioral science scholars agree that this model of human thinking and behavior is clearly incomplete — people rely on a range of other cues besides facts in guiding their attitudes and behavior. For example, sometimes we simply act based on how we feel about an issue. Unfortunately, the facts don’t always convince.
But the term “information deficit” is problematic, too. People tend to have limited information in most areas of life. For example, we often don’t know the thoughts and feelings of other people we trust and value. Similarly, we might have limited knowledge about appropriate cultural norms when traveling to a new country, and so on. Information deficit isn’t a very meaningful term to use to theorize about human thinking.
Another theory about human thinking is called “cultural cognition.” In brief, it suggests that our cultural values and worldviews shape how we think about science and society.
It’s easy to be duped into thinking of the human brain as a sponge that soaks up only the information it wants to believe. For example, the theory suggests that people’s position on divisive issues such as climate change is not informed by scientific evidence, but rather by the strong commitment people have to their political…