An atheist, a Turkish graduate student and a member of the Gay Straight Alliance walk into a bar — no, they attend Texas Wesleyan.

Although one of them cannot vote, all three fall within the 18 to 29-year-old age range of 46 million eligible voters in the upcoming presidential election, which accounts for 21 percent of the eligible voting population, according to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Studies have shown that millions of voters may not change their opinions or beliefs when making decisions at the polls this November, or ever, even if presented with information that proves their opinion wrong.

Misinformed and Stubborn

Conducted about six years ago by professors at the University of Michigan and Georgia State University, the When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions studies showed test subjects news stories containing misleading information. When presented with corrections, rather than change their opinions according to the facts, subjects’ opinions were reinforced and their misinformed beliefs were strengthened.

Lisa Hensley, associate professor and chair of psychology at Wesleyan, describes the studies’ findings in an over-the-top manner: It’s like a person who believes a politician eats babies, she said, even after hard data proves otherwise.

“If you’re already predisposed to hate that candidate anyway, that new information is not likely to change your mind,” Hensley said.

Two concepts, Hensley said both in the realm of cognitive psychology, which deals with how people think, provide insight into the misinformation phenomenon.

The first concept pertains to the human brain’s desire to categorize. An example she gives describes a person becoming familiar with a chair and its function: That person doesn’t have to relearn what to do every time they see a new chair, she said.

“We’re hardwired to do that,” Hensley said. “We’re hardwired to put things into categories. Stereotyping is a natural outgrowth of how our brains process information.”

Stereotyping produces selective memory and results in people’s tendencies to remember and pay more attention to information that agrees with their concepts and disregard information that doesn’t, she said.

While Hensley’s first concept deals with how people receive information, the second looks at what people do with the information. When emotions are running high and people consider themselves well informed about an issue, people are less likely to change their minds, she said.

“We alter things,” Hensley said, citing the studies as an example. “We alter one of our beliefs, or distort, or rationalize to make our beliefs more consistent to one another.”

As an example, Hensley said that even though a person considers stealing wrong, he or she will probably keep a $20 bill they find in an empty parking lot. Because no one is around, the person might justify the action of keeping the money by distorting their beliefs.

“New information is less likely to change their minds about anything,” she said. “They’re more likely to distort the new information coming in.”

The Students

Fuat Kara, graduate business student, readily identified with the misinformation phenomenon and how he handles it.
“That’s the problem with the world — they think they are all perfect,” Kara said. “For me, if there is enough proof that my belief is not right, I will change it.”

Kara comes from Turkey, where most people receive their information from newspapers, he said. He prefers the internet, checking sites that he said he believes have less biased views than others, such as the BBC. Family and culture can deeply affect one’s opinions, he said, if that person does not further research the subject elsewhere.

Actively seeking information, Kara said, does not mean someone won’t fall victim to misleading biases.

“The media, even the internet, is not really objective,” Kara said. “They tell you what to think.”

Despite the existence of mental stubbornness and influential media, Kara said having the proper character and an education can sometimes pierce the most cemented opinions. However, even he said that “you can’t change people that don’t want to be changed.”

Like Kara, freshman Alainee Bradley, political science major, said she believes education plays a large factor in a person’s biases and beliefs.

“Unless you’re a true academic, you’re not going to be able to accept what someone’s telling you,” Bradley said in reference to receiving information that conflicted with one’s beliefs.

Bradley used her parents, who strongly stand behind the Democratic Party, and a former Republican high school classmate as examples of people who have immovable biases.

“When that’s all you hear is positivity toward one side, that’s more than likely how you’re going to approach that [topic],” she said. “I think that plays a huge role.”

She herself analyzes topics from an academic standpoint and backs up her beliefs with data, she said, although her opinion does sometimes seep into her thought process when she’s confronted with opposing viewpoints.

Bradley used Facebook as an example of being exposed to information one doesn’t agree with and deciding how to process it. She said that as an atheist, she receives updates from friends in her news feed that may not agree with her beliefs mixed in with other updates she does agree with.

“It goes both ways,” she said.

She does not, however, turn to hostility toward beliefs she disagrees with.

Niky Morrison, sophomore biology major, also does not resort to hostility when opposing viewpoints are presented — she asks questions.

“I think it’s because of the way I was brought up,” she said. “My mom is a hardcore ‘If there’s a question, then research it’ [type of person].”

A busybody in the Wesleyan community, Morrison was in the process of founding a Greek organization sorority at time of interview. She also serves as a Resident Assistant and a member of the Gay Straight Alliance.

Despite her questioning nature, she said her friends’ opinions will often trump that of someone’s she doesn’t know.
“Hands down,” she said.

Still, the question remains: Will Wesleyan students and the rest of the country use information or misinformation when they walk into the polling booths this November?

Jonathan Resendez