How We Support Our False Beliefs
(Aug. 23, 2009) — In a study published in the most recent issue of
the journal Sociological Inquiry, sociologists from four major research
institutions focus on one of the most curious aspects of the 2004 presidential
election: the strength and resilience of the belief among many Americans that
Saddam Hussein was linked to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Although this belief influenced the 2004 election, they claim it did not result
from pro-Bush propaganda, but from an urgent need by many Americans to seek
justification for a war already in progress.
The findings may illuminate reasons why some people form false beliefs about
the pros and cons of health-care reform or regarding President Obama’s citizenship,
The study, "There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam and Inferred Justification"
calls such unsubstantiated beliefs "a serious challenge to democratic theory
and practice" and considers how and why it was maintained by so many voters
for so long in the absence of supporting evidence.
Co-author Steven Hoffman, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of sociology
at the University at Buffalo, says, "Our data shows substantial support
for a cognitive theory known as ‘motivated reasoning,’ which suggests that rather
than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a
particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they
"In fact," he says, "for the most part people completely ignore
"The study demonstrates voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations
based on faulty information," he explains.
While numerous scholars have blamed a campaign of false information and innuendo
from the Bush administration, this study argues that the primary cause of misperception
in the 9/11-Saddam Hussein case was not the presence or absence of accurate
data but a respondent’s desire to believe in particular kinds of information.
"The argument here is that people get deeply attached to their beliefs,"
"We form emotional attachments that get wrapped up in our personal identity
and sense of morality, irrespective of the facts of the matter. The problem
is that this notion of ‘motivated reasoning’ has only been supported with experimental
results in artificial settings. We decided it was time to see if it held up
when you talk to actual voters in their homes, workplaces, restaurants, offices
and other deliberative settings."
The survey and interview-based study was conducted by Hoffman, Monica Prasad,
Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University; Northwestern
graduate students Kieren Bezila and Kate Kindleberger; Andrew Perrin, Ph.D.,
associate professor of sociology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill;
and UNC graduate students Kim Manturuk, Andrew R. Payton and Ashleigh Smith
Powers (now an assistant professor of political science and psychology at Millsaps
The study addresses what it refers to as a "serious challenge to democratic
theory and practice that results when citizens with incorrect information cannot
form appropriate preferences or evaluate the preferences of others."
One of the most curious "false beliefs" of the 2004 presidential
election, they say, was a strong and resilient belief among many Americans that
Saddam Hussein was linked to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hoffman says that over the course of the 2004 presidential campaign, several
polls showed that majorities of respondents believed that Saddam Hussein was
either partly or largely responsible for the 9/11 attacks, a percentage that
declined very slowly, dipping below 50 percent only in late 2003.
"This misperception that Hussein was responsible for the Twin Tower terrorist
attacks was very persistent, despite all the evidence suggesting that no link
existed," Hoffman says.
The study team employed a technique called "challenge interviews"
on a sample of voters who reported believing in a link between Saddam and 9/11.
The researchers presented the available evidence of the link, along with the
evidence that there was no link, and then pushed respondents to justify their
opinion on the matter. For all but one respondent, the overwhelming evidence
that there was no link left no impact on their arguments in support of the link.
One unexpected pattern that emerged from the different justifications that
subjects offered for continuing to believe in the validity of the link was that
it helped citizens make sense of the Bush Administration’s decision to go to
war against Iraq.
"We refer to this as ‘inferred justification,’" says Hoffman "because
for these voters, the sheer fact that we were engaged in war led to a post-hoc
search for a justification for that war.
"People were basically making up justifications for the fact that we were
at war," he says.
"One of the things that is really interesting about this, from both the
perspective of voting patterns but also for democratic theory more generally,
Hoffman says, "is that we did not find that people were being duped by
a campaign of innuendo so much as they were actively constructing links and
justifications that did not exist.
"They wanted to believe in the link," he says, "because it helped
them make sense of a current reality. So voters’ ability to develop elaborate
rationalizations based on faulty information, whether we think that is good
or bad for democratic practice, does at least demonstrate an impressive form
Adapted from materials provided by University
See also (Excellent links at original source):
Mind & Brain
Science & Society
* Political Science
* Privacy Issues
* Confirmation bias
* List of cognitive biases
* Cognitive dissonance
* Cognitive bias