In a world where “post-truth” was 2016’s word of the year, many people are starting to doubt the efficacy of facts. Can science make sense of anti-science and post-truthism? More generally, how can we understand what drives people’s beliefs, decisions and behaviors?
Scientists have developed many theories to describe how people process and think about information. Unfortunately, there’s an increasing tendency to see people as creatures whose reasoning mechanisms are largely dependent on a narrow set of processes. For example, one popular theory suggests that if we just communicate more accurate information to people, their behavior will change accordingly. Another suggests that people will reject evidence if it threatens their deeply held cultural worldviews and associated feelings.
It’s more important than ever that our approach to communication is evidence-based and built on a strong, theoretical foundation. Many of these models contribute valuable insights and can help us design better communication, but each on its own is incomplete. And science communicators have a tendency to oversimplify, focusing on a single model and disregarding other theories.
We suggest that this is a dangerous practice and less effective than a more nuanced and holistic view. The apparent choice between “fact” and “feeling,” or between “cognition” and “culture,” is a false dilemma. In reality, both are related and address different pieces of the decision-making puzzle.