In an unhealthy society, like our own currently, people construct parallel worlds to see only what they want to see, hear only what they want to hear, and follow only who they want to follow. In this world, motivated beliefs are the currency of self-deception.
A recent study explains why.
Researchers gave seven hundred people an IQ test. No one received their test scores right away. The only feedback at this point was self-perception – how well participants thought they did on an objective test of intelligence.
With nothing more than self-perception, each person was randomly assigned to a group of ten participants and asked to rank themselves against the other group members. This was the research equivalent of sizing up the competition on the first day of class or training camp.
The researchers then used the test results to compare participants against three randomly selected members of the group of ten. Each person was told whether they ranked higher (positive feedback) or lower (negative feedback) than the others.
This is where the study gets interesting.
The swing of time
The researchers asked one group to self-assess again immediately after receiving higher-or-lower feedback. The researchers described the findings from this group:
We find that, measured directly after the feedback, beliefs show adjustments in the appropriate directions. Subjects who received positive feedback adjusted their beliefs upward, while subjects who received negative feedback adjusted their beliefs downward.
In contrast, researchers waited thirty days to ask the second group to self-assess. And here's where the human mind works wonders.
The time delay – from feedback to second self-assessment – dramatically changed how the participants recalled the experience. The researchers described the self-deception:
While beliefs after positive feedback remain adjusted upward, beliefs after negative feedback substantially “recovered” and reﬂect the feedback to a much smaller extent. Thus, the effect of negative feedback on beliefs is mitigated over time. Even though individuals adjust their beliefs to negative feedback in the short run, over the course of one month, conﬁdence returns to a level comparable to that prior to the feedback.
Over time, people retained the positive feedback but discarded the negative stuff.
Conversations with friends
This study reminded me of a recent conversation I had with my buddy.
He's a super conservative guy from MAGA world. I'm not. Yet, as friends, we talk about and argue over politics.
A few months back, I sent my buddy a chart, below, comparing job creation. It unquestionably shows that, over the first three years of each administration, job growth was higher under Obama than Trump.
My buddy texted back: "Wow. I didn't know that." At that moment, when provided with the equivalent of negative feedback, he adjusted his perceptions downward.
Fast forward a few months.
We're again talking politics, and my buddy starts reciting the "Trump is the greatest jobs president in history" line. Damn the evidence, he did not – or could not – recall our earlier conversation. The sky is red in my buddy's parallel universe.
Whether IQ tests or political positions, what I find most interesting is how the subconscious filters various forms of feedback. The idea that how people feel about feedback fundamentally impacts their ability to assess, interpret, and recall that information:
We ﬁnd that negative feedback is indeed recalled with signiﬁcantly lower accuracy, compared to positive feedback ... Our results suggest that participants are able to suppress the recall of unwanted memories.
We live in weird times
Perhaps no other study better captures our moment.
We can live in a parallel universe of our making – mostly online, largely fanciful– or we can live in the real world. But we cannot live in both.
Only self-deception can make us believe otherwise.