What alternative facts do you believe in?

In 2016, the term "post-truth" was voted Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries. In the same year Angela Merkel used the word "post-factual" in Germany to describe a culture of political discussion in which the meaning of facts takes second place to that of emotions and perceived truths. How does it come about that people choose to believe certain information as "truths" and to ignore other information? How can scientists communicate findings in such a way that they also reach those who doubt?

A research group led by social psychologists Tobias Rothmund and Mario Gollwitzer investigated this over a period of four years as part of the DFG priority program "Science and the Public". The researchers gained three central insights: First, people rarely evaluate facts impartially, but rather against the background of individual goals, needs or motivational states. "However, it is important for people to perceive their own assessment processes as being guided by reason," says Tobias Rothmund, junior professor for political psychology at the University of Koblenz-Landau.

Personal motivations influence the evaluation of facts

The researchers were able to show that people generally follow an asymmetrical strategy of information processing: Arguments that are in line with personal motivations are very easily accepted. Arguments that contradict personal motivations, on the other hand, are examined very critically. A targeted search is made for alleged contradictions or deficiencies in the methodology, logic of argumentation or the reputation of the scientific sources.

A prominent example of this is human-made climate change. In the US, it became clear in the public discussion that conservatives deny the existence of man-made climate change more than liberal Americans. These differences are attributed to the fact that conservatives want to believe more strongly that climate change does not exist - because they perceive the associated changed living conditions as more threatening. "This motivational starting point promotes increased skepticism towards scientific evidence for climate change and an asymmetrical processing of scientific findings on this topic," explains Mario Gollwitzer, Professor of Methodology and Social Psychology at the Philipps University of Marburg.

The second finding of the social psychologists: People are particularly prone to these asymmetrical evaluations when they associate strong convictions or concerns with a topic. "This is particularly relevant when sensitive groups of people are to be identified and addressed, such as parents in the discussion about the harmfulness of early childhood vaccinations or passionate video gamers researching the effects of video game violence," says Mario Gollwitzer.

Communication of facts: the "how" is decisive

"Our third finding is important both for the political context and for the communication of scientific results," says Tobias Rothmund. "Depending on how facts are communicated, these asymmetrical processing processes can either be strengthened or weakened."

Specifically, the studies show: If test subjects are reinforced in their personal or social identity, they are more willing to accept facts that actually contradict their motivations. Passionate video gamers, for example, were less critical of findings on the harmfulness of media violence if they had previously been assigned special skills as a group - thus reinforcing their need for a positive social identity. In the USA, it was found that opponents of climate change were more open to critical findings when an environmentally conscious attitude was communicated as patriotic. Mario Gollwitzer concludes: "Science communication can succeed if a critical exchange takes place on an equal footing and personal or social stigmatization of groups is actively avoided."

Project funding:
The project was financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG) with funds from the federal and state governments as part of the priority program "Science and the Public". More information on the priority program: Wissenschaftundoeffentlichkeit.de