Why does the evidence fail to change what we think?

Why does the evidence fail to change what we think?

On many occasions we have found ourselves in situations where someone refused to accept clear evidence. Even we, being honest, have refused to change our mind about something even knowing that there is contrary evidence. In these situations we cannot help but ask ourselves, Why does the evidence fail to change what we think?


  • 1 Daily situations
  • 2 Why does the evidence fail to change what we think? What is behind all this?
  • 3 Social conformity
  • 4 Clinging to the Self
  • 5 The "I" and Impermanence
  • 6 The I and the Expectations
  • 7 Leon Festinger and Cognitive Dissonance
  • 8 Albert Bandura and moral disengagement

Everyday situations

What better way to start the topic by illustrating it with situations that we have all experienced in our day to day. Recently I had a little debate watching a football game. The team of which we are followers scored a goal, but was annulled by the referee because the ball left the field before the goal. My partner maintained that the ball had not come out, however, my position was that it had gone out and therefore the goal was not valid.

When they showed the repetition it was clearly seen that the ball had come out completely. To my surprise, my partner defended that the ball had not come out at all. Just then I thought, what can lead a person to defend what the evidence contradicts? Why, despite seeing clearly that the ball was out, was he still defending it?

This very common case is repeated frequently in the world of football, in which some deny clear evidence. A foul can be more discussed, but there are clear attacks that depending on the team are seen as obvious attacks or as simple sets of the game.

Why does the evidence fail to change what we think? What is behind all this?

What does this clear example tell us? That we observe reality through our filters. We do not observe what really happens out there. But we observe a stimulus, we process it, we adapt it to our thinking and we emit an answer. And not only that, but on many occasions we are not only conditioned by our experience, but we want to be right despite the contrary evidence.

But the answer to the question "why does the evidence fail to change what we think?" It requires a much more thorough analysis. An analysis that delves into the depths of our being, in our identity. On the one hand we will address the most social part with the Solomon Asch experiment and see how we can deny clear evidence from social pressure. However, it will be in the approach of the concept of "I" from Buddhist psychology where we will deepen until we reach the crux of the matter.

Social conformity

In 1951 the psychologist Solomon Asch carried out in return a series of experiments that would not leave anyone indifferent. Let's get in situation. A room. A group of people between 7 and 9 people sitting at a table. An experimenter A screen with two slides. On the left slide you see a vertical line of a specific length. On the right slide you see three vertical lines (A, B, C) with different lengths. Participants must say which of the three vertical lines measures the same as the sample line on the left slide.

The differences between lines were clear to give no margin for error. However, all assured as correct a line that clearly does not mean the same. How could this be? What was happening? It turns out that all who were sitting, except one, were complicit in the experimenter. They had to say an erroneous answer and observe what happened when the "victim's turn" came. Would you say the same answer as most or would you say the correct answer?

"The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-intentioned young people are willing to call white blank. This is a cause for concern. It raises questions about our forms of education and the values ​​that guide our behavior ".


36.8% of the subjects "victims" assured that the correct answer was the incorrect one. Under normal conditions, only 1% failed. This abysmal rise in errors shed light on the theory of social conformity in which, no doubt, there is an underlying social pressure.

This experiment shows us how Despite having evidence in front, social pressure can change our response. At this point we enter into another important aspect since here we could live the social pressure and therefore it was wrong in the answer. But what happens if we move it day by day?

Clinging to the Self

The buddhist psychology It gives us a very deep and interesting insight into why the evidence fails to change what we think. And the answer to this mystery would be the "clinging to self".

Since we were born they baptize us with a name. Little by little we began to form an identity. First we are influenced by our parents, our family, the cultural environment in which we live. Later the friends of the school, the professors, the companions of the institute, etc.

We spend our lives surrounded by people and information that influence our way of thinking and acting. It is not the same to be born in the Spain of the 40s than to be born in the same country in the year 2000. The way of seeing the life of one person and the other will be very different. It won't even be the same to be born in the same year but in different countries.

Each person, by their experience, by their culture, by their environment, by their concerns has gradually formed a way of being, that is, an "I". But what happens? From the Buddhist psychology, this "I" is nothing more than the sum of all those conditions that we have been receiving since childhood. Therefore, it is only a construction and as such is subject to change. The key aspect, according to Buddhism, is that we are not willing to let go of the "I".

The "I" and Impermanence

This "I" gives us a supposed fixed and unchanging identity that defines us as individuals, however, nothing is fixed or permanent, so the "I" would also be subject to change. Here comes into play the Buddhist concept of "impermanence", is that nothing remains and everything changes. Everything is constantly changing even if we don't perceive it.

Some changes are more obvious, but others not so much. Because everything is constantly changing, the "me" too, but we cling to a static and immutable identity. Within this identity lie beliefs, thoughts, ideas, etc.

So that, the fact that something contradicts what we have been thinking for a lifetime endangers our "I", our identity, so we prefer to deny the evidence before "breaking" the concept (or a small part) we have of ourselves.

To think that we can stop being a lot of people is scary. Consciously or unconsciously produces rejection as we can feel that our "I" is blurring and we are being another person. In this way, it is easy to answer why the evidence fails to change what we think. How many times have we heard the famous phrase "I am like that"? It is nothing more than a statement about a unique and immutable way of being.

We have also heard many times phrases like "I don't care what science says, this is so, period." What lies behind this assertion is an affirmation in the ideas that form the "I". Because ... what would happen if what I have been thinking all my life is not as I thought? Many people would feel that something is collapsing inside. "I can't be all my life wrong ..."

The I and the Expectations

Lama Rinchen, a Buddhist teacher, says that those with a closed mind to change are more likely to suffer existential crises from time to time. These crises are the result of contrast so great that it has been created over the years between our idea of ​​"me" and the reality that surrounds us. Thus, there is a crisis that makes them change the "I".

The majority of students when they finish their studies imagine themselves within ten years exercising their profession. To this is usually added economic stability, a car, a house, even a family. Everyone projects their future as they would like.

However, in most cases, this is not true and we have to adapt to reality. It is here that many suffer their crises since there is an inconsistency between expectations and what really happens. The more we cling to our expectations, the greater the suffering.

On the other hand, he defends that those with a conscious mind of continuous change do not need so much time to modify their "I". But it occurs gradually as circumstances change. In this way, when they observe an evidence, instead of closing it, they observe and integrate it into their "I". In this case it would be the student who gradually adapts to the circumstances of life and modifies his goals as the years go by and more or less opportunities arise.

Leon Festinger and Cognitive Dissonance

In 1957 the psychologist Leon Festinger used the concept of cognitive dissonance to define the effort made by an individual to establish a state of coherence with himself.

"People tend to maintain coherence and consistency between actions and thoughts. When this is not the case, people experience a state of cognitive dissonance."


The clearest example is those who even knowing that tobacco is harmful continue to smoke. Nobody wants to endanger their health but they usually justify themselves with phrases like: "why live if you can't enjoy life". Despite the evidence of the tobacco-cancer relationship, smokers adapt their thoughts to behavior as opposed to having good health.

Behind the adaptation to a behavior in dissonance with our thoughts lies self-deception. Someone can be sure that he will never be unfaithful, however, if one day he will hit his deepest beliefs. What will happen? You may begin to blame your partner: "it was no longer the same."

Albert Bandura and moral disengagement

Albert Bandura proposed in 2002 the theory of moral detachment to justify behaviors despite cognitive dissonance. This moral separation consists of disable guilt feelings and can be based on one or more of the following mechanisms:

  1. Justification of the immoral act. It consists in the cognitive reconstruction of the immoral act so that the act justifies a greater achievement. An example could be to torture an alleged terrorist. The immoral actor of torture could be justified to avoid future attacks. The comparison also comes into play. The smoker can compare his behavior with a worse one: "I only smoke, others do worse."
  2. Denial and rejection of individual responsibility.The person who has committed the immoral act assures that his intention was not to harm anyone. They also tend to blame external conditions and ensure they were "pushed" to act the way they did. On the other hand, we also find those who justify themselves by saying that their action is unimportant within those who perform an immoral action. For example, a person can throw a can to the ground ensuring that "nothing can happen for a can, there are people who pollute much more."
  3. Denial and rejection of negative consequences. The person assures that he has not directly harmed anyone. For example, if someone comes to steal from our house, the thief can justify himself thinking that the insurance will return the amount of the stolen.
  4. Denial and rejection of the victim. It consists of blaming the victim: "He / she has provoked me." Dehumanization also comes into play, in which the victim is degraded in such a way that ceases to generate empathy as a human being.

We have been able to verify that the question "why does the evidence fail to change what we think?" Has not gone unnoticed among scholars of human behavior. From Buddhist psychology to modern psychology they have established their theories to explain this phenomenon.

As we could read, Festinger and Bandura's theories in the background are not to damage the image we have of the "I". When we internalize that everything is constantly subject to change we can accept those evidences and make them ours. And we will know that our identity does not run any risk, on the contrary, we will get richer and richer.


  • Bandura, A. (2002). Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency.
  • Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Journal of Moral Education, 31, 101-119.