Shouts Banish Doubts

New research suggests one reason our political discourse is so loud and angry: Planting seeds of doubt leads people to more vigorously advocate for their cherished beliefs.

Two years ago, faith in free-market capitalism was badly shaken when the international banking system nearly collapsed. To many, a sober re-evaluation of the government’s regulatory role seemed an inevitable response.
Instead, today’s political discourse is largely driven by the Tea Party movement, which is impassioned and vocal in its defense of unfettered free-market capitalism.

Why have so many rallied in support of a system that recent events suggest is deeply flawed? Newly published research confirms and expands upon an insight first revealed in the 1950s: If confidence in one’s core tenets becomes shaky, a common response is to proselytize all the more vigorously.

The apparent reason, according to Northwestern University researchers David Gal and Derek Rucker, is that advocacy on behalf of one’s beliefs helps banish any uncomfortable lack of certainty.

“Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence,” they write in the journal Psychological Science, “the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.”

The notion that shaken beliefs leads to increased levels of advocacy can be traced back to Leon Festinger’s 1956 seminal book When Prophecy Fails. It examined a cult whose members believed in their leader all the more strongly and began actively advocating on his behalf even after his predictions of catastrophe failed to materialize.

Gal and Rucker set out to replicate Festinger’s findings and use more recent psychological research to determine precisely what drives this dynamic.

They conducted three experiments. In one, 151 people recruited from an online database were surveyed about their eating habits. Their confidence level was manipulated by asking them to describe either two situations in which they felt considerable uncertainty, or two situations in which they felt a great deal of certainty.

They were then asked whether they were a vegan, vegetarian or meat eater and instructed to indicate on a seven-point scale how important their choice of diet was to them.

Finally, the participants were instructed to imagine they were discussing their food choices with someone who followed a different type of diet, “and to write what they would say to convince that person of the advantages of that diet.”
The result: Participants induced to feel doubt wrote longer messages and spent more time writing them than participants induced to feel comfortable. This effect was particularly strong among those who viewed their dietary preference as very important to them; it disappeared altogether among those who considered diet unimportant.

In both this and a second experiment, “individuals induced to feel doubt about their beliefs exerted more effort toward advocating beliefs,” the researchers write. A third study, which looked at Mac and PC users, found the doubtful also “expressed a greater likelihood to attempt to persuade other people of their beliefs.”

This helps explain why political rhetoric has ratcheted up during a time of rapid societal change. In a logic-driven world, the shattering of long-held assumptions such as “the U.S. will never be attacked on its home soil” or “the value of my house will never decrease” would lead to a thoughtful period of reflection and re-evaluation. In our world, it leads one to actively advocate one’s pre-existing beliefs all the more passionately.

So, in contrast with conventional wisdom, the Tea Partiers may not be true believers so much as they are people who have had their confidence in the system shaken. To overcome any distressing doubts, they have reaffirmed their convictions by loudly attempting to persuade others. As Gal and Rucker put it in the title of their paper: “When in Doubt, Shout!”