What did you have to wear in high school in order to fit in: designer jeans or jeans that hang low? Chuck Taylors or jellies? No matter what the garment, or how specific the style was, all of us had to conform to a group norms in some way. We are social creatures that evolved to put a high value on fitting in to our social group. For our ancient ancestors being an outcast meant facing the elements on our own, and probable death, which meant that belonging was akin to surviving.
Today the distant echoes of this biological imperative live on: we will still do almost anything to fit in and be accepted. This principle extends far beyond the whims of clothing, into the very logic that rules our supposedly rational decision-making and democratic society. Belonging feels so important, says a recent study, that even mathematics can be ignored if it means hewing to the dogma of your political party. Not only that, but the better your math skills, the more likely that you will crunch the numbers to prove your beliefs correct—even if that means crunching them wrong.
The study, conducted by Dan M. Kahan and his Yale colleagues, involved 1,111 participants of varying political beliefs, ranging from very liberal to very conservative. The participants were tested to determine their numeracy (skill with numbers and mathematics), and then shown the supposed results of a skin cream study. The results were extremely simple, placing the number of people whose skin rash got better after using the cream against those who did not use the cream.
They then asked participants to make a decision about whether the study meant that the skin cream worked or not. In some cases the numbers made the skin cream look effective and in others it made it look very ineffective. It was no surprise that those with higher numeracy skills were more likely to come to the correct conclusion than those with poor math skills.
The next question was not so neutral, however. It hit on a hot button topic: gun control. The numbers and layout were exactly the same, but this time the participants were asked to determine if crime increased or decreased in cities with a ban on concealed weapons. Again there were two versions, one with a correct answer of a decrease in crime and one with correct answer of an increase. This time, however, the results were quite different.
Those with low to moderate math skills calculated their answer to match their political beliefs, relying on their heuristic reasoning. And here is where it gets interesting: so did those with high numeracy, in fact they were more likely to do so. If the correct answer threatened their political identity, they ignored their math skills and relied on a rule-of-thumb type of reasoning.
The study suggests that those with a better grasp on numbers will use their knowledge to promote the answer that supports their political beliefs even if it means skewing the results. The authors of the study believe that these findings back up the Identity Protective Cognition Thesis, which posits that people’s cognitive abilities get impaired when something threatens their status as a group member.
From the Being Human perspective, it seems that we will bend everything to match the ideas of our social group. We shut down what we know to be true, to fit what we think will make us popular and accepted. Even with all the comforts of modern society, the ancient fear of being outcast trumps our reasoning skills every time.