Wed, 5 April 2023
Everyone, it is said, is allowed their own opinion. But what if someone’s own opinion was in fact one foisted on them by someone else, and yet the original opinion holder in turn holds the changeling opinion as their own?
Unlikely? Actually, not so unlikely, as the research of Petter Johansson and Lars Hall into ‘choice blindness’ shows. In this Social Science Bites podcast, Johansson – who with Hall runs the Choice Blindness Laboratory at Sweden’s Lund University – reveals some of the unexpected aspects of self-interpretation and how there’s been a very large natural example in the United States of this blindness in action.
We are “less aware of the reasons for our choices than we think we are,” he has determined, and reasoning, as we call it, is often conducted post hoc.
Johansson starts his discussion with host David Edmonds by giving his and Hall’s first forays into the study of “how we come to know our own minds.” Their work built on others’ research into something called “change blindness,” which describes not noticing a change – even a major one – that occurs before your eyes.
(Inattentional bias – such as the famous gorilla basketball video – is when we miss something obvious but unexpected right before us because we’re focusing on something else in the tableau. “I’ve seen this at conferences on monster-sized screens, when it is practically King Kong walking in the background, but still people miss this.”)
Johansson describes how the research partners ‘magically’ morphed this line of inquiry into studies of what they call “choice blindness” using a card trick. “When you have the appearance of free choice,” he says, “when you have the magician say, ‘Pick a card, any card you want,’ the only thing you know is that the choice is no longer free. This was the aspect we wanted to incorporate into our experiments.”
In the initial experiment, subjects were shown pairs of faces on cards, and asked to choose which they found more attractive. The researcher then handed them that card and asked why they chose it over the other. But sometimes, using sleight of hand, the researcher handed the subject the card with the other face, and asked again why they chose that face.
“Even when the faces were drastically dissimilar, and the [subjects] could look at the cards for as long as they want, only 25 to 30 percent of the participants detect that the switch has been made,” Johansson reveals. “But it’s not only that they pick it up – they then must start constructing reasons why they picked this face,” justifying a choice they didn’t make.
Subsequent experimentation found that opinions on taste, smell, consumer choice, and more could be subject to such blindness. The researchers, for example, set up a tasting station at a local supermarket, and after having the ol’ switcheroo played on their choice of jam, the subjects came up with “similar types of elaborate explanations” for why the jam they didn’t choose was in fact the better one. The researchers also worked with pairs of people, asking them who they might choose to flat with. And here the resulting confabulation was collective.
The researchers also found choice blindness in politics (especially when the other opinion had a reasonable case that could be made). People on the street were asked to participate in survey about a policy position, and the interviewer would respond with “you clearly believe …” in a position they didn’t choose. And as you now will expect, the subjects defended their ‘new’ stance.
“This says something about what a belief is, or an attitude is,” Johansson says. The source of the opinion matters: if you think it comes from you – even when it in fact did not – there must be good reason to hold the opinion. “People don’t like being told what’s right or wrong. But if you can tell yourself what’s right or wrong, it’s much more likely to stick.”
And this can also be outsourced when your “team” makes a call, and partisans “quickly change their own attitudes to match.”
Which brings us to former U.S. President Donald Trump. Under Trump, Johansson says, “It felt like there was four years of showing this point almost every day. Trump would change the policies or long-held beliefs almost every day and Fox and Friends and all these voters would just fall in line and quickly construct arguments why this was the right view all along.”
While this might seem a dour outcome with opinion chameleons calling the shots, Johansson sees a brightside. “It does show we are probably more flexible than we think. We have the ability to change.”