The Doubting Missionary

Many missionaries admit to deep doubts. This often makes them more vehement in their persuasion, not more tentative. (If they were motivated only by helping others, then their doubts would in fact make them more tentative).

In a new study, 
David Gal and Derek Rucker from Northwestern University have found that when people’s confidence in their beliefs is shaken, they becomestronger advocates for those beliefs. The duo carried out three experiments involving issues such as animal testing, dietary preferences, and loyalty towards Macs over PCs. In each one, they subtly manipulated their subjects’ confidence and found the same thing: when faced with doubt, people shout even louder.

Gal and Rucker were inspired by a classic psychological book called When Prophecy Fails. In it, Leon Festinger and colleagues infiltrated an American cult whose leader, Dorothy Martin, convinced her followers that flying saucers would rescue them from an apocalyptic flood. Many believed her, giving up their livelihoods, possessions and loved ones in anticipation of their alien saviours. When the fated moment came and nothing happened, the group decided that their dedication had spared the Earth from destruction. In a reversal of their earlier distaste for publicity, they started to actively proselytise for their beliefs. Far from shattering their faith, the absent UFOs had turned them into zealous evangelists.

The case study inspired Festinger’s theory of “cognitive dissonance”, which describes the discomfort that people feel when they try to cope with conflicting ideas. Festinger reasoned that people will go to great lengths to reduce this conflict. Altering one’s beliefs in the face of new evidence is one solution but for Martin’s followers, this was too difficult. Their alternative was to try and muster social support for their ideas. If other people also believed, their internal conflicts would lessen.

Festinger predicted that when someone’s beliefs are challenged, they would try to raise support for those beliefs with paradoxical enthusiasm. Amazingly enough, during the intervening half-century, this prediction has never been tested in an experiment – that is, until now.

In their first experiment, Gal and Rucker asked 88 students to write about their views on animal testing for consumer goods, but only half of them were allowed to use their preferred hand. This may seem random, but previous studies have shown that people have less confidence in what they write with the hand they’re less comfortable with. Indeed, that’s what Gal and Rucker found in their study. When asked later, the volunteers who didn’t use their dominant hand were less confident in their views.

However, they were also more likely to try and persuade others of those same views. When they were asked to write something to persuade someone else about their opinions, those who felt less confident wrote significantly longer missives. With a sliver of doubt in their minds, they spent more effort in their attempts at persuasion.

Gal and Rucker also found that this extra effort vanished if the volunteers had a chance to affirm their own identity beforehand. If they were asked to identify their favourite items (books, cities, songs and so on) before writing about animal testing, the choice of hand had no effect on their advocacy attempts. If they were asked to say what their parents’ favourite things were, the hand effect reappeared.

In their second experiment with 151 fresh volunteers, Gal and Rucker found the same effect. This time, they influenced the recruits’ degree of confidence by asking half of them to relate memories where they were brimming with certainty, and the other half to describe relate memories where they were plagued with doubt Afterwards, the volunteers said whether they were vegans, vegetarians or meat-eaters, how confident they were in their opinions, and how important their choice was to them.

As expected, those who remembered times of uncertainty were less confident that their food choices were the right ones. And as before, those same doubtful volunteers advocated their beliefs more strongly. When asked to imagine convincing someone else about their diet, the uncertain group wrote significantly longer messages and spent longer composing those messages.

This experiment – with a different method of manipulating confidence, a different issue at stake, and a different measure of evangelical effort – adds weight to the results of the first one. However, the effect only held true among those who felt that their dietary preferences were important to them. This showed (perhaps, more expectedly) that the ties between doubt and advocacy are stronger for beliefs that are people hold more dearly.

The third experiment found similar results, using a far more trivial issue (well, supposedly more trivial). Gal and Rucker worked with 106 students who all thought that Macs were superiors to PCs. Again, the duo successfully manipulated the students’ confidence by asking them to remember a previous incident of certain resolve or uncertain doubt.

The students had to imagine convincing a PC-user about the merits of an Apple product but this time, half were told that they were talking to a Windows-diehard, and the others were faced with a more open-minded partner. As before, the students put more effort into persuading their imaginary partner if their own confidence was weakened, but only if their partner was receptive.

In all three cases, Gal and Zucker found that doubt turns people into stronger advocates. More subtly, their study shows that this effect is stronger if someone’s identity is threatened, if the belief is important to them, and if they think that others will listen. It all fits with a pattern of behaviour where people evangelise to strengthen their own faltering beliefs.

This all agrees with my experience.  It’s reasonable to spend more time forming an argument for something you’re not totally convinced of (ideally, you would also review the arguments against and possibly revise your belief). By carefully making a case, you should be effectively double checking that it’s still worth believing in the doubtful thing.  As for ”this effect is stronger if someone’s identity is threatened, if the belief is important to them, and if they think that others will listen”, people always crave validation; people spend more effort on things they care about; people prefer to skip communicating with someone who isn’t receptive, respectively.

I don’t like the category “identity is threatened”; this can only really refer to the first study, which showed that being allowed to answer questions about who you are lessens the tendency to spend more effort justifying a belief that you struggled with (being forced to use your off-hand to write about it).