Why evidence won't change your convictions

Learning to separate ego and truth

Convictions are integral to our identity, which is why they so rarely change. We should all beware of mistaking our tribal values for reasoned beliefs, warns philosopher Michael P. Lynch.

There are times, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once noted, when reasons run out, when our “spade is turned on bedrock.” When that happens, evidence for or against our beliefs seems beside the point. All that is left, he suggests, is the deed.

Those of us living through the polarized politics of 2020 can sympathize. In the United States in particular, it certainly seems like people have dug in all the way to bedrock. Donald Trump famously suggested four years ago that he could shoot someone and his supporters would still back him. This struck some as darkly funny then, but no one is laughing now.  It seems that for some people--and not just on the Right—nothing will change their minds.

All of which begs a simple but difficult question: why is it so hard to change our political convictions? One part of the puzzle lies in the nature of conviction itself. 

A conviction is not just a strongly held belief. I strongly believe I am writing on a computer but that is hardly worth calling a conviction of mine. As Wittgenstein’s allusion to bedrock suggests, we think of our deepest convictions as the ground on which our worldview stands. They become part of the landscape, our frame of reference, our “picture of the world”.  As a result, convictions feel certain. But not everything we feel certain about is a conviction.

To change your convictions means changing the kind of person you want to be. It means changing your self-identity. And that is not just hard, it is scary.

What makes a conviction a conviction is not its logical certainty or how well supported it is. It is not the content of the conviction that matters; what matters is its connections, or its perceived connections, to our way of life and to what matters to us.

Most importantly, convictions signify to ourselves and others what kind of person we want to be—even if we often lack the courage to live up to them. In short, convictions reflect, and partly compose, our self-identity. It is this fact that makes a conviction feel certain to us, whether or not it really is.

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By “self-identity” I mean my aspirational self, or what is sometimes called my self-image. That’s a matter of not just who I am - my religion, my job, and so on - but what I care about, and the groups and values with which I wish to identify myself.

Because they reflect our self-identities, our convictions carry authority over our lives. Most obviously, they have authority over our actions; they obligate us to do some things and grant us permission to do others. A religious conviction, for example, can give believers the moral permission to blow themselves up, or cause them to engage in nonviolent protest in support of civil rights.

But crucially, convictions don’t carry just moral authority. They also have authority over what we believe. Once something becomes a real conviction, it is difficult for us, from a psychological standpoint, to doubt, and as a result they are resistant to counter-evidence.

This connection to self-identity explains why attacks on our convictions feel so personal—because, in a real sense, they are. But it also explains why they are so hard to change. To change your convictions means changing the kind of person you want to be. It means changing your self-identity. And that is not just hard, it is scary.

Among other things, changing a conviction can feel like an act of self-betrayal and a betrayal of one’s tribe. And naturally, the tribe may well agree. So, as the Yale psychologist Dan Kahan has emphasized, COVID-hoaxers and climate change deniers are, in a weird way, being rational from the standpoint of self-interest by being epistemically irrational—that is, by ignoring the evidence and sticking to their convictions come what may. No one wants to crush their self-image, betray their tribe and be voted off the island. 

When we are trying to change other people’s convictions, we need to understand what we are asking them to do: to change their self-identity.

Once we understand the relationship between convictions and identity, it can seem hopeless to try and change them. How can we engage in the sort of rational persuasion that real democratic politics demands in the face of our instinct for psychological preservation?

But at the same time, we know it is possible. People do change. Consider the case of Derek Black, for example, a committed and well-known white supremacist who changed his views after getting to know some Jewish students at his college. He came to realize, he later wrote, that the worldview he cherished was truly frightening to others, something he had always dismissed before.

This should tell us something. The philosopher Otto Neurath once said that changing our belief system was a bit like rebuilding a ship while at sea. We stand on one part in order to fix another. When we are trying to change other people’s convictions, we need to understand what we are asking them to do: to change their self-identity. But in order to do that, they need something else to hold onto—some other part of their identities to treat as solid ground. Remove everything and they are adrift. That may have been how it was with Black: he aspired to be a non-threatening, non-harmful person, but he also aspired to be a white supremacist. Change occurred when he realized he couldn’t be both. He had to choose who he wanted to be.

If we want to change people’s convictions—or our own—we need to acknowledge that we may only be able to do so piecemeal. And it may take time.  It can, and often does happen gradually over the course of living, adopting new customs, moving to a new place, speaking a different language or falling in love. The gradual nature of these processes can mean changes in our self-identity happen largely without explicit conscious attention. But not wholly so. No change in our aspirational vision of what kind of person we are can be wholly without an impact, on our conscious decisions about how to represent ourselves to both ourselves and others.

When we make everything a matter of conviction, our self-identity expands in a dangerous way.

Understanding the nature of conviction means we also need to be careful about expanding our convictions into every frame of our life. That’s one reason social media is such a barrier to constructive discourse. Sharing our outrage or amusement online about e.g. the kinds of cars or coffee or music our political opponents favor can be fun and comforting. But it is also a way we signal to each other about what our tribe values.  We signal to each other that these choices too should be seen as a matter of conviction. And we signal that it would be dangerous to change our minds. As a result, commitments that we think are principled, a result of our individual story of our best self, can actually be just fragments of a larger tribal narrative. Social media can be a very effective conviction machine.

We all need convictions, because we all need a self-identity—a picture of who we want to be. But when we make everything a matter of conviction, our self-identity expands in a dangerous way. We risk confusing our ego with truth, the shifting sands with real bedrock.


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Peter Hall 15 October 2020

This is directly relevant to the political climate at the moment. In most conversations with younger people I see them emotionally defending their sense of self, not thinking about the arguments. I also think that people are so overwhelmed with information that any extra uncertainty - questioning a belief, for example - causes them to break down.