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New Tool Explores How Beliefs Shift in a Complex Social Environment

A new modeling tool is allowing scientists to explore how changing an individual’s opinion on a central issue leads to changes in their opinions on related issues, as well as shifts in the views of others in the groups to which the individual belongs.

The tool highlights how the interdependence of different beliefs can cause groups to become strongly polarized on an issue, despite being exposed to what should be moderating influences. This may explain, for example, why some groups reject scientific findings, despite being aware of them.

The results, reported in the 21 October issue of Science, offer an important new framework for understanding how and why opinions can shift, especially in areas where beliefs are interconnected.

Noah Friedkin, the study’s lead author, and a professor in the department of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues presented several illustrations of the dynamics allowed by the model, showing how the model can explain the diversity of behaviors observed in real social groups.

A new modeling tool explores how complex intrapersonal influences can change an individual’s opinion on a central statement, leading to opinion changes on related issues. | Adapted from Carter Butts by Val Altounian/ Science

One illustration involved evaluating what happened when beliefs regarding the trustworthiness of evidence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq changed in the U.S., and how that in turn impacted views on whether a preemptive invasion of Iraq was justified.

“We used the Iraq War because most readers are familiar with the circumstances under which the invasion occurred, and the startling discovery that the premises of the invasion were false,” Friedkin said.

In this particular example, the logic structure and beliefs advocated by the U.S. government generated support for the invasion of Iraq. Upon the discovery that no weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq, however, the same logic structure generated great opposition to the war. 

“The influence network we studied is a social structure with profound implications, and one of great interest to the scientific community,” said Friedkin. “We believe that the human brain automatically integrates information, including attitudes of others, to form an attitudinal orientation toward a perceived object, and we provide a new mathematical model of this process.”

The results are especially intriguing in a social climate and during a controversial presidential election year in which individuals are largely polarized into two groups: either rejecting the premise of a central statement – and thus rejecting all derivative statements – or accepting the premise and the attendant statements.

To date, research has shown that people rarely form opinions by merely accepting or rejecting the social consensus of others. For example, individuals who reject manmade climate change may be aware of the scientific consensus on this subject, but reject the idea for various reasons. 

To better understand this phenomenon, Friedkin and colleagues worked to extend the so-called Friedkin-Johnsen model, which explores how opinions on a single issue evolve.   

“Our objective was to advance the science on belief system dynamics,” said Friedkin. “Our new model generalizes the Friedkin-Johnsen mechanism to interdependent issues, where a change of opinion on one issue may propagate changes of opinion to other issues.”

In this way, the new model better accounts for the power of beliefs central to individual worldviews. For example, the belief that human civilization is too insignificant to alter the global environment can in turn prevent belief in manmade climate change and related ideas.

The model works by incorporating an intrapersonal influence mechanism that allows opinions on different issues to become “entangled,” Friedkin explained. It captures the way individuals regulate the extent to which their own opinions are open or closed to influences by other people.

The beliefs of individuals may be resistant to change, of course. “The framework allows for stubborn individuals who hold fixed positions on one or more issues,” Friedkin said.

The new modeling tool will help researchers answer important questions about how views on important societal issues will change, providing insights into individuals’ likelihoods of being persuaded to a new belief.