During the first months of the novel coronavirus outbreak, many rural parts of the U.S. did not experience the swell in caseloads or hospital admissions that threatened to overwhelm cities like New York, Detroit, and New Orleans. West Texas was one of these comparatively fortunate places. And considering the Lone Star State’s long-running antipathy toward government oversight, it made sense that some there would choose to ignore or downplay warnings from federal and local health officials.
But elements of the script have since flipped, and Covid-19 case numbers are now spiking in many counties across West Texas. One might assume that, in the face of rising caseloads, many there would abandon their prior insouciance and embrace masks and other common-sense measures recommended by the nation’s top public health officials. But that doesn’t seem to be happening; if anything, the resolve of many Covid-19 skeptics appears to be stiffening. Even state officials who can no longer ignore the virus continue to lash out at public health authorities. (Last week, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick criticized Dr. Anthony Fauci, saying that Fauci “has been wrong every time on every issue” and “I don’t need his advice anymore.”)
Anyone who has ever butted heads with a friend, a family member, or a colleague about one of science’s hot button issues — be it global warming, the safety of vaccines, or the gravity of the current pandemic — has likely walked away from the experience frustrated and exasperated at the other person’s stubborn and apparently nonsensical refusal to consider the facts.
But psychologists say that the denial of facts is often rooted in identity and belonging, not in ignorance and that changing minds may require a lot more than sound reasoning.
“The people who deny science are often trying to uphold membership in something that they find meaningful,” says Nina Eliasoph, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. That meaningful thing could be a political or religious affiliation or some other group that prizes certain ideas or ideals. Whatever shape that group takes, the important thing is that it has other members — it’s a community.
Once a community absorbs an idea into its collective viewpoint, rejecting that idea becomes akin to rejecting the whole community, Eliasoph says. And that sort of rejection is a very, very difficult thing for any of its members to do. “This is why you talk with people who deny science and the goalposts are always changing,” she says. “What really matters is the membership in the thing that has meaning, and to keep that membership you have to ignore certain ideas and pay attention to others.”
“The people who deny science are often trying to uphold membership in something that they find meaningful.”
The causes and correlates of denial
Denial, in a nutshell, is the rejection or diminution of a phenomenon that has a large — and sometimes overwhelming — body of supporting evidence.
When it comes to science denial, global warming may be the most conspicuous example. Science’s case that the planet is warming, that people are contributing heavily to this warming, and that this warming — if not addressed — will imperil billions of lives is almost unassailable. And yet huge chunks of the American electorate evince some form of climate-change denial. Even people who are worried about global warming are often unwilling to make even small personal sacrifices that, collectively, could make a meaningful difference.
Why do people do this? Experts say that our aversion to cognitive dissonance is one explanation. “Cognitive dissonance is a negative emotional state characterized by discomfort or tension, or maybe feelings of anxiety or guilt, that’s produced from beliefs or behaviors that are inconsistent with one another,” says April McGrath, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Mount Royal University in Canada who has published work on cognitive dissonance. For example, a person who believes the planet is warming may also want to drive a gas-guzzling SUV, and these competing interests create cognitive dissonance.
Because cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, people tend to want to get rid of it. And McGrath says that there are generally two ways that people can do this: change a behavior — that is, ditch the SUV for an electric vehicle — or change a belief. Most people go with option B. “Changing a behavior is usually difficult because most behaviors are rewarding,” she says. Changing a belief is often easier, and that’s where some element of denial comes into play. “This could mean trivializing the source of the dissonance” — telling yourself that switching to an electric car won’t make any difference in the grand scheme — “or adding some new belief or idea that supports or rationalizes your choice,” she says. The latter could entail embracing conspiracy theories that argue climate-change consensus is some kind of nefarious ploy.
Before any of us gets too judgy, McGrath says that everyone engages in denial. “We are all constantly bombarded by decisions or choices that create dissonance or conflicts, so we can’t always act in accordance with our ideals,” she says.
Once a community absorbs an idea into its collective viewpoint, rejecting that idea becomes akin to rejecting the whole community.
Along with cognitive dissonance, there are many other scenarios or psychological states that tend to produce denial. “These are all related to each other — they’re not totally independent,” says Craig Anderson, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University. He terms one “belief perseverance,” which refers to people’s attachment to ideas or conceptions that they’ve held in the past. We don’t like to change our minds, Anderson explains, and we tend to ignore new information that challenges our long-held views. (Confirmation bias — seeking out and retaining only the information that supports one’s view — is a related concept.)
“Reactance” is another, he says. This refers to the negative feelings that people experience when their freedom is somehow threatened — like if state or local government officials tell them that they can’t shop, dine, travel, or congregate as usual. “Fear is also a big one,” he says. If someone finds a belief or idea to be scary — both global warming and Covid-19 are ready examples — that fear is a powerful motivator of denial.
While all of these overlapping factors can feed into denial, some who study human psychology say that group dynamics — coupled with every person’s vital need to belong — are at the root of many science deniers’ seemingly inscrutable beliefs and behaviors.
Scratching a deep psychological itch
Rebekka Darner, PhD, is director of the Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Illinois State University. Much of her work has focused on improving science literacy and combatting science denial among the general public.
Darner says that a key element of effective science teaching and communication involves “self-determination theory.” This theory holds that people have three basic psychological needs that undergird their motivation to engage in any behavior.
“The first is a need for autonomy, or the belief that an action came from the self,” she says. The second is the need for competence. “This doesn’t mean that a person actually is competent,” she clarifies. What’s important is that the person believes that they are competent and capable of achieving their goals. “The third one is the need for relatedness — a sense of belonging and that other people need you and value your input,” she says.
For those hoping to weaken a friend or loved one’s science denial, Darner says that it’s necessary to start from a place of respect and amity.
The social groups that people identify with tend to satisfy all three of these basic psychological needs, Darner says. And because of this, people are strongly motivated to accept their group’s ideas or to engage in behaviors that are valued within their social spheres. For example, she says that some social groups may place a high value on bucking authority (“You’re not going to control me”) and this attitude and its associated behaviors — like not wearing a mask — can supersede all others.
Self-determination theory helps explain why the widespread adoption of anti-science or anti-expert views is so dangerous. If a person’s group identity motivates them to deny one element of science — like the person who rejects the theory of evolution on religious grounds — then that can be a problem, but at least it’s somewhat contained. If huge numbers of Americans decide that a core element of their group identity is the rejection of science or of creditable expertise, then that’s a problem of a whole other magnitude.
The good news, Darner says, is that beliefs linked to group identities are not intractable. “Humans are complex, which works in our favor,” she says. “No person associates with a single identity, and we all have a variety of different communities with which we interact.” When people are regularly exposed to diverse groups and ideas that clash with their own, the resulting contradictions create uncertainty. And while people tend to find uncertainty uncomfortable, Darner says that uncertainty is often the precursor of learning and idea reassessment.
Unfortunately, she says that some elements of contemporary life may steer people away from these helpful, perspective-balancing encounters with other viewpoints. The ideological myopia — as well as the us-against-them vitriol — that characterizes much of today’s media, both traditional (newspapers, cable news) and new (social media, online message boards), tends to strengthen a person’s opinions and their feeling of being part of a large and like-minded community. Pushing back against all that can be a Sisyphean endeavor.
For those hoping to weaken a friend or loved one’s science denial, Darner says that it’s necessary to start from a place of respect and amity. “People need to feel like you value them and their opinion,” she says. “This kind of relationship has to be there first.” It may help to ask questions — rather than offer counter-arguments — and to respond with interest and noncritical feedback to articles or viewpoints the other person shares. Once you do that and you’ve established more congenial footing, your counterpart may be more willing to consider your side of things. It goes without saying that, however satisfying it may be, telling someone that they’re ignorant and brandishing facts or articles that back your case is the kind of “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach that’s almost certain to fail, and is likely to solidify the person’s opposition to your viewpoints.
But even if you say and do all the right things, your odds of success are probably slim. “Individuals very seldom fulfill basic psychological needs for other individuals,” Darner says. “That fulfillment comes from a larger community and identifying with them and being a part of them.”
The science denier in your life may eventually come around, but it’s unlikely that you’re going to reel that person back in on your own.