Why facts don't change our minds

10 Apr 2017

A recent article in The New Yorker Why facts don't change our minds gives a fascinating look at new discoveries about the human mind showing the limitations of reason. This is relevant to effective vegan advocacy. How do we best educate people about the principle of veganism: that we should avoid causing unnecessary suffering?

The article looks at several carefully designed psychological studies about how people react to facts that go against pre-existing beliefs. It also tries to explain this "illogical" behaviour in terms of useful adaptations during our evolution.

Below are some of the main points in the article.

  • Once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant. Presenting counter facts may not change people's views.
  • Even after evidence for their beliefs has been refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs.
  • The contention that people can't think straight may be shocking, but thousands of experiments have confirmed that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational.
  • Confirmation bias is the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Many studies have shown that people with opposing views can have those opposite views supported by the very same information. Research suggests that people experience genuine pleasure (a rush of dopamine) when processing information that supports their beliefs. The researchers observed that "It feels good to 'stick to our guns' even if we are wrong."
  • People believe that they know way more than they actually do, an effect known as the "illusion of explanatory depth,"
  • If people are asked to explain in detail their views and work through the implications, they often moderate their position.

If our goal is to effectively educate people about veganism and animal rights, then we need to take into account the "irrational" side of human psychology. However, the implications of these findings for vegan advocacy are not immediately clear. As the article says "Providing people with accurate information doesn't seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science." Perhaps the answer lies in appealing to people's emotions to allow them to open up to the facts and not be scared of change.


Vegan Australia is an animal rights organisation that campaigns nationally for veganism. 
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