Strong attitudes in a debate

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Many discussions in the evolution-creation debate involve people who have very strong opinions about  either evolution or creationism. The people who are involved in the debate  do not voice their opinions in a indirect way. Each side communicates in a strong and direct way that they really have a strong attitude about a particular subject.

In communication studies, those opinions are called strong attitudes. Strong attitudes are known for several things:

  1. They affect judgement
  2. They are resistant to persuasion
  3. They are based on a high personal relevance
  4. They are stable over time
  5. They predict manifest behavior
  6. They are linked to our self-concept

It is widely known that strong attitudes can cause a biased way of information processing and also invoke the process in which material in favor for a particular stance is more easily memorized. Moreover,  strong attitudes can bias the amount of data or people that we think agree with us.

According to the social judgement theory we can conclude that people with strong attitudes are not easily persuaded and that when we  make a linear scale of persuasion, strong attitudes have very wide region in which a message or argument can be rejected and a very small area in which the messages will be assimilated. One of the important implications of this particular theory is that people only can be persuaded when the advocated positions are not too different from their existing attitudes. 

A second theory which has had a profound importance in communication studies and also social psychology is the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM). The ELM states that information or arguments can be processed with two very different mental strategies:

  1. Information can be centrally processed (under high personal involvement)
  2. Information can be peripheral procesed (under low personal involvement)

Contrary to the peripheral way, the central way of processing information takes a significant amount of thinking.  The person involved in a particular issue will carefully think about relevant arguments and he will normally develop stronger attitudes towards a message.

People most of the time say that when they carefully thought about a particular opinion, and have taken a position in that, that they are right and that other people are simply wrong. But one of the major implications of this theory is that central processing can be objective, but also be biased. Biased processing is most likely to occur with already hold strong attitudes.

Now, I would like to apply this to the debate about evolution and creation. As example I want the reader to think of a person which do not know anything about evolution. He learned from his parents that the earth is created in six days around 6000 years ago. When he grows up, he will experience that people think differently about creation and even deny creation at all.

As all people will have, this gives a little discomfort, because that was not what he expected. He thinks creation is true, God exists, and that the Bible in inerrant.

This young lad could do two things:

  1. He could just walk away and say that it is not of importance and also try to think and absorb the arguments that are opposed to creation (low involvement).
  2. Second, he could try to think about it in a centrally processed way (high involvement): Because he already holds a strong attitude (opinion) there will be a really small opportunity to persuade him with any argument. Even more, according to the social judgement theory he will not be persuaded when the advocated positions are not too different from the existing attitude he already has. Second, he will probably tries to reinforce his own worldview and therefore there is a huge risk that he will process the information in a biased way.

The same example could be done with a professor that believes that evolution is true and that creation is absolute nonsense. Because of his previous experience with evolution (he thought centrally about it in his education and career) he will have developed a strong attitude towards evolution. Any argument, that differs a lot from his stand will not cause him to be persuaded. Any centrally processed thinking does not automatically lead to objectivity and could also be biased.

This year I had the opportunity to do some communication and psychology classes at the university and it was a revelation for me. The natural sciences think only about truth, theories and do most of the time not allow a human component into their studies.

People are extremely biased, even highly respected leaders in science can be wrong. And the development of strong attitudes by all people does not help at all.

Maybe it is human nature to always think that his own opinion is the best. People are fallible, and logic thinking in an unbiased way is probably out of grasp for us.

What could evolutionists and creationists learn from this? Knowing that we are fallible in information-processing and as a result critical thinking is extremely difficult could improve our understanding of each other.

The conclusion of all this should be that in science even the most intelligent people can fall to a biased way of information-processing and that we as scientists should realize that this dark passenger always resides with us, and that we never should think that we are infallible even when it comes to matters of the heart.

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