Obstacles to the spread of unintuitive beliefs

Mercier, H., Majima, Y., Claidière, N., & Léone, J. (2019). Obstacles to the spread of unintuitive beliefs. Evolutionary Human Sciences, 1, E10. doi:10.1017/ehs.2019.10

Abstract: Many socially significant beliefs are unintuitive, from the harmlessness of GMOs to the efficacy of vaccination, and they are acquired via deference toward individuals who are more confident, more competent or a majority. In the two-step flow model of communication, a first group of individuals acquires some beliefs through deference and then spreads these beliefs more broadly. Ideally, these individuals should be able to explain why they deferred to a given source – to provide arguments from expertise – and others should find these arguments convincing. We test these requirements using a perceptual task with participants from the US and Japan. In Experiment 1, participants were provided with first-hand evidence that they should defer to an expert, leading a majority of participants to adopt the expert’s answer. However, when attempting to pass on this answer, only a minority of those participants used arguments from expertise. In Experiment 2, participants receive an argument from expertise describing the expert’s competence, instead of witnessing it first-hand. This leads to a significant drop in deference compared with Experiment 1. These experiments highlight significant obstacles to the transmission of unintuitive beliefs.