Republicans’ beliefs are bending to Trump. Here’s why they might no...

We don’t often remember when we change our minds.

... new research from psychology suggests ...: Many political beliefs are fickle, and people probably don’t realize it when they change their minds.

Michael Wolfe, a memory and learning researcher at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, recently published an experiment in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology that found when people change their mind on a subject, they have a hard time recalling that they ever felt another way.

It’s an intriguing finding in part because it affirms that people think their beliefs are more stable than they actually are. Which means they may be less open to information that conflicts with their belief.

It’s also further evidence that despite what we may think, we don’t hold consistent ideological views. 

“We don’t go in and grab a memory like opening up a word file or reading it off a tape,” Wolfe explains. “But rather, if you ask a person at a particular time to report their belief, they construct their belief at that moment based on a combination of things that are easily available to them at that time.”

Memories aren’t retrieved; they’re constructed with cognitive shortcuts. And when memories are constructed, we can’t easily see the seams. We don’t notice that they’ve changed.

“When people try to remember a previous belief, information that’s available at a moment biases their ability to remember this old information,” Wolfe says. “They end up thinking their current belief is very similar to their previous belief.” [yellow highlight mine]

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... this topic — meta-awareness of belief change — isn’t studied all that often, so some follow-up is needed.

The revelation of this, that our memories are tinged by how we feel in the present, paints public opinion polls in a new light.

The lesson here: When people answer public opinion polls, they rely on mental shortcuts. They may replace a hard question (“How do I feel about international trade taxes?”) with an easy question (“What team am I on, and how would they answer this question?”).

“These shortcuts can be political ideology; it could be religiosity, deference to scientific authority,” says Dominique Brossard, a psychologist who studies public opinion at the University of Wisconsin. “People don’t see themselves as being irrational doing this.”

Are we remolding ourselves to conform to a new reality where lies are the norm and fascism has always been immanent?

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Replies to This Discussion

If people have a hard time recalling how they felt from one poll to the next, it raises some questions; if one is "fickle" about political beliefs, what changes? Do values change or principles?

Does one form political beliefs because fashion forms a particular view? Perhaps one builds a confidence before thinking through an idea and changes as soon as new information informs the belief.

Answering questions on a poll are different than putting a mark on a ballot. Does one reveal a fickle belief system as shown by voting patterns of an individual?

Perhaps one hears or reads a charismatic speaker or writer who compellingly offers new information. The vote could quickly change as could the answer to a poll.  

A charismatic leader may convince many others to change answers from one poll to the next; the outcome of a political race could change as well. 

If cognitive shortcuts construct memories, perhaps time influences one to have different cognitive alternatives. 

An excellent article! 

When I was a San Francisco political activist I knew people who, after they'd voted, lied to pollsters and bragged about doing so.

One polling company surveyed people who had just voted. They were all residents in an apartment house that by itself had enough voters to be a precinct, and most of them were recent immigrants from England.

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