People Often Don’t Know Why They Believe Things But Will Come Up With a Reason Anyway

person in a Spider-man costume on the riding an elephant statue
Image by Jessie Pearl / CC BY

While the study of the nuts and bolts of the human mind is still arguably in its infancy, people have been observing and arguing about human behavior for centuries. Empirical social science is relatively new (with the earliest formal studies only going back to the 19th century) but has managed to make a dizzying number of discoveries and exciting insights about human nature — ones in which our natural bias about our own species is at least somewhat mitigated by the scientific process and clever experimental design.

Catching up on what’s already been uncovered can be overwhelming for a new student of psychological research. I personally found the whole thing incredibly daunting. How would I ever begin to grasp even the basics of such a wide field of knowledge?

I sighed and got to work. Thankfully, I quickly found that I loved reading peer-reviewed studies. That it wasn’t drudgery for me but fascinating.

And even better, as this enjoyment led to my devouring research, I began to notice something: While almost every study offers something a little different in isolation (that is, unless it’s a replication), once you start to read enough of them, you definitely start noticing patterns. Overarching principles. Ways that clusters of seemingly disparate concepts seem to function in a similar way.

Sometimes this is even how new research comes to be. A researcher generates a hypothesis that follows a consistent pattern found in another field of study, designs an experiment, and the hypothesis stands up to that testing.

The Post Hoc Justification, the Elephant and the Rider

One of the biggest patterns is incidentally also one of the hardest ones for people to accept: What we consciously perceive, think, and feel is far from the entire contents of our mind. There’s much that goes on with us mentally and emotionally that happens below the level of our conscious awareness. Accepting this is often humbling, unpleasant, and even scary for people. Since we often like to think that we’re rational, self-aware, and in control of our inner lives.

But the research largely does not support this. And when tested, humans will often behave contrary to how they predict they will beforehand. And will often have quick gut emotional reactions to situations that precede any careful or rational thought.

A clever person will often be able to offer a complex rationalization if given a few moments to think over the incident. “Well, I think that because X, Y, Z…” but researchers studying this phenomenon have found that these post hoc justifications are quite suspect and often are more about making the person’s actions make sense to them and less about the actual reasons.

One of those researchers, Jonathan Haidt, compares our conscious awareness to a rider sitting on an elephant. The elephant in his analogy is the unconscious mind, the automated and lightning quick processes by which we form judgments about things in our environment. Per Haidt:

You can see the rider serving the elephant when people are morally dumbfounded. They have strong gut feelings about what is right and wrong, and they struggle to construct post hoc justifications for those feelings. Even when the servant (reasoning) comes back empty-handed, the master (intuition) doesn’t change his judgment.

Well, that’s frustrating. But haven’t we all been there, talking to someone who sticks to a sense of blistering moral outrage regardless of the strength of facts presented to them?

I sure have.

I hate to think that I’ve been on the other side of it, the stubborn moralizer. But odds are good that, yup, I’ve done it, too. Ugh.

Here’s what Haidt advises: “Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.”

And I have also found it a helpful principle to keep in mind when evaluating my own reactions to things, to make sure that I’m not simply scurrying towards the most convenient explanation instead of taking the time to sort out what’s actually going on.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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