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People only sometimes seek out opposing views, study finds

July 3, 2009
Courtesy University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
American Psychological Association
and World Science staff

Peo­ple tend to avoid in­forma­t­ion they don’t agree with—but cer­tain fac­tors can prompt them to seek out, or at least con­sid­er, oth­er points of view, new re­search has found.

The anal­y­sis, re­ported this month in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Bul­le­tin, in­clud­ed da­ta from 91 stud­ies in­volv­ing nearly 8,000 par­ti­ci­pants. The au­thors said it set­tles a long­stand­ing de­bate over wheth­er peo­ple ac­tively avoid in­forma­t­ion that con­tra­dicts what they think, or wheth­er they’re simply ex­posed more of­ten to ide­as that con­form to their own be­cause they tend to be sur­rounded by like-mind­ed peo­ple. 

In­formation that contra­dicts what peo­ple already be­lieve usu­ally ends up dis­carded, re­search­ers have found. The scientists said the finding set­tles a long­stand­ing de­bate over wheth­er peo­ple ac­tively avoid in­forma­t­ion that con­tra­dicts what they think, or wheth­er they’re simply ex­posed more of­ten to ide­as that con­form to their own be­cause they tend to be sur­rounded by like-mind­ed peo­ple. (Im­age cour­tesy U.S. EIA)


“We wanted to see ex­actly across the board to what ex­tent peo­ple are will­ing to seek out the truth ver­sus just stay com­fort­a­ble with what they know,” said Un­ivers­ity of Il­li­nois psy­chol­o­gist Do­lo­res Al­bar­racín, who led the study with Un­ivers­ity of Flor­i­da re­searcher Wil­liam Hart.

The stud­ies they re­viewed gen­er­ally asked par­ti­ci­pants about their views on a giv­en top­ic and then al­lowed them to choose wheth­er they wanted to view or read in­forma­t­ion sup­port­ing their own or an op­pos­ing point of view.

The re­search­ers found that peo­ple are on av­er­age about twice as likely to se­lect in­forma­t­ion that sup­ports their own point of view as to con­sid­er an op­pos­ing idea. Some, more closed-minded peo­ple are even more re­luc­tant to ex­pose them­selves to dif­fer­ing per­spec­tives, Al­bar­racín said.

The re­search­ers al­so found, not sur­pris­ing­ly, that peo­ple are more re­sist­ant to new points of view when their own ide­as are as­so­ci­at­ed with po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious or eth­i­cal val­ues.

“If you are really com­mit­ted to your own at­ti­tude – for ex­am­ple, if you are a very com­mit­ted Dem­o­crat – you are more likely to seek con­gen­ial in­forma­t­ion,” Al­bar­racín said. “If the is­sues con­cern mor­al val­ues or pol­i­tics, about 70 per­cent of the time you will choose con­gen­ial in­forma­t­ion, ver­sus about 60 per­cent of the time if the is­sues are not re­lat­ed to val­ues.”

Per­haps more sur­pris­ing­ly, peo­ple who have lit­tle con­fi­dence in their own be­liefs are less likely to ex­pose them­selves to con­tra­ry views than peo­ple who are very con­fi­dent in their own ide­as, Al­bar­racín said. 

Cer­tain fac­tors can al­so in­duce peo­ple to seek out op­pos­ing points of view, she said. Those who may have to pub­licly de­fend their ide­as, such as politi­cians, for ex­am­ple, are more mo­ti­vat­ed to learn about the views of those who op­pose them. In the pro­cess, she said, they some­times find that their own ide­as evolve.

Peo­ple are al­so more likely to ex­pose them­selves to op­pos­ing ide­as when it is use­ful to them in some way, Al­bar­racín said.

“If you’re go­ing to buy a house and you really like the house, you’re still go­ing to have it in­spect­ed,” she said. Sim­i­lar­ly, no mat­ter how much you like your sur­geon, you may seek out a sec­ond opin­ion be­fore schedul­ing a ma­jor opera­t­ion, she said.

“For the most part it seems that peo­ple tend to stay with their own be­liefs and at­ti­tudes be­cause chang­ing those might pre­vent them from liv­ing the lives they’re liv­ing,” Al­bar­racín said. “But it’s good news that one out of three times, or close to that, they are will­ing to seek out the oth­er side.”


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People tend to avoid information that they don’t agree with—certain factors can cause them to seek out, or at least consider, other points of view, a study has found. The analysis, reported this month in the research journal Psychological Bulletin, included data from 91 studies involving nearly 8,000 participants. The authors said it settles a longstanding debate over whether people actively avoid information that contradicts what they think, or whether they’re simply exposed more often to ideas that conform to their own because they tend to be surrounded by like-minded people. “We wanted to see exactly across the board to what extent people are willing to seek out the truth versus just stay comfortable with what they know,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Dolores Albarracín, who led the study with University of Florida researcher William Hart. The team also included researchers from Northwestern University and Ohio University. The studies they reviewed generally asked participants about their views on a given topic and then allowed them to choose whether they wanted to view or read information supporting their own or an opposing point of view. The researchers found that people are on average about twice as likely to select information that supports their own point of view as to consider an opposing idea. Some, more closed-minded people are even more reluctant to expose themselves to differing perspectives, Albarracín said. The researchers also found, not surprisingly, that people are more resistant to new points of view when their own ideas are associated with political, religious or ethical values. “If you are really committed to your own attitude – for example, if you are a very committed Democrat – you are more likely to seek congenial information, that is, information that corresponds with your views,” Albarracín said. “If the issues concern moral values or politics, about 70 percent of the time you will choose congenial information, versus about 60 percent of the time if the issues are not related to values.” Perhaps more surprisingly, people who have little confidence in their own beliefs are less likely to expose themselves to contrary views than people who are very confident in their own ideas, Albarracín said. Certain factors can also induce people to seek out opposing points of view, she said. Those who may have to publicly defend their ideas, such as politicians, for example, are more motivated to learn about the views of those who oppose them. In the process, she said, they sometimes find that their own ideas evolve. People are also more likely to expose themselves to opposing ideas when it is useful to them in some way, Albarracín said. “If you’re going to buy a house and you really like the house, you’re still going to have it inspected,” she said. Similarly, no matter how much you like your surgeon, you may seek out a second opinion before scheduling a major operation, she said. “For the most part it seems that people tend to stay with their own beliefs and attitudes because changing those might prevent them from living the lives they’re living,” Albarracín said. “But it’s good news that one out of three times, or close to that, they are willing to seek out the other side.”