Endless Curiosity

November 7, 2009

Belief: The Familiarity Effect

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 7:56 am

We tend to believe that what is familiar is good. From Kluge, page 48:

Another study, replicated in at least 12 different languages, showed that people have a surprising attachment to the letters found in their own names, preferring words that contain those letters to words that don’t.

The Familiarity Effect is one reason it can be so difficult to change social policies – we believe that what we already have is good, regardless of whether another policy might be better, and regardless of whether the current policy is even working. I’m sure you can come up with your own examples of policies that are not working, but which are almost impossible to change. As Marcus says, people tend to assume the rule “If it’s in place, it must be working.

Here’s an example of favoring current social policies, from pages 49-50:

Subjects were asked to evaluate policies such as the feeding of alley cats – should it be okay, or should it be illegal? The experimenter told half the subjects that alley-cat feeding was currently legal and the other half that it wasn’t, and then asked people whether the policy should be changed. Most people favored whatever the current policy was and tended to generate more reasons to favor it over the competing policy.

Because our brains are a mixture of new brain build on top of old brain, both old brain and new brain are involved in beliefs. However, when we become stressed or threatened, we tend to go to the old brain and to cling to the familiar. From page 50:

Other things being equal, people under threat tend to become more attached than usual to their own groups, causes, and values. Laboratory studies, for example, have shown that if you make people contemplate their own death, they tend to be nicer than normal to members of their own religious and ethnic groups, but more negative toward outsiders. Fears of death also tend to polarize people’s political and religious beliefs: patriotic Americans who are made aware of their own mortality are more appalled (than patriots in a control group) by the idea of using the American flag as a sieve…. Another study has shown that all people tend to become more negative towards minority groups in times of crisis; oddly enough, this holds true not just for members of the majority but even for members of the minority groups themselves.

The impact of the Familiarity Effect on our beliefs has profound implications for politics in this country because the current Great Recession is causing a lot of people to feel a lot of stress and to feel a lot more threatened.

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