Human beings: how we’re pre-wired to ignore the evidence

I think if there’s a central thesis to any of my writing it’s something like: data insufficient for changing individuals or organisations. Just as gravity is apparently to be the weakest of the fundamental sources, I think presenting data may the weakest way to change anyone’s view of anything.

I’ll keep returning to this theme, but I’m really struck by the persuasive power of “Irrationality” by Stuart Sutherland. Sutherland argues that our instincts to belong to groups, to think quick, to protect our own egos and perhaps simply the wiring of our brains, prevent us from being able to rationally engage with different points of view, or easily incorporate new evidence into our maps of the world. Originally published in the early 90s, some of the case studies are out of date (as is occasionally the language) and I’m sure there are more up to date psychological studies, but it’s a very persuasive and enjoyable read.

Sutherland puts forward a thesis about how people protect themselves from having to reconsider their ways of thinking (Sutherland, 2013, pg., 135)

  1. People consistently avoid exposing themselves to evidence that might disprove their beliefs
  2. On receiving evidence against their views, they often refuse to believe it
  3. The existence of a belief distorts people’s interpretation new evidence to make it consistent with the belief
  4. People selectively remember items that are in line with their beliefs
  5. People desire to protect their self-esteem (by not wanting to expose themselves to being ‘wrong’)
  6. People excel at inventing explanations for events or phenomena

There’s lots in this book about how we belong to groups and both adopt the beliefs of the in-group and reject the beliefs of the out-group and we can see it being played out in political discourse and social media. I’m very aware of how incomprehensible I find the starting points of comments I see on twitter, but of course, I’m just seeing points of view from within my own bubble.

But, what if we take Sutherland’s 6 threads and apply them to a student who is at risk of early departure from their course?

  1. How many students avoid emails or communication from concerned tutors?
  2. If their tutor gets through, will they still cling to the belief that “I’ll be fine”?
  3. I wrote about this phenomenon in the post on heuristics, but all students in higher education know that they’ve done okay at some point and passed assessments, this must have at least the potential to distort their view about risk of failing this time
  4. If people selectively remember items in line with their existing beliefs, what’s the impact of the feedback sandwich I wonder? “I really liked the way that you started this assignment … your argument was incomprehensible all the way through … nice ending” – “that’s alright, they loved my introduction!!!”
  5. Right up until a student has failed an assessment/ module/ programme, they’re in a liminal or potential state. They haven’t actually failed, it’s easy to see how it’s possible to ignore feedback or communication from tutors because in this light.
  6. We all know a story of the student who did no work and got the highest grades. Right? Their tutors definitely didn’t know any better either.

I’m being really unfair to the hypothetical student. However, I’d argue that until we understand this and build it into our support, feedback, remediation etc., I fear that we’re likely to continue failing to get through to our students at risk.

2 thoughts on “Human beings: how we’re pre-wired to ignore the evidence

  1. Pingback: More persuasive than stats? – Living Learning Analytics Blog

  2. Pingback: Who traces the tracers? Algorithm Watch Report 2021 – Living Learning Analytics Blog

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