We like to think of ourselves as highly rational people which means that we should value information that can be proven right or wrong. Whenever we talk about our attitudes and beliefs, we have the option to either prove our beliefs objectively right by focusing on testable facts, but in doing so, we leave ourselves open to the possibility that our beliefs could be wrong. Take for instance a fan of rap music and a fan of country music debating over which is the better genre. They could chose to focus on objective facts that could be easily googled like record sales, number of fans, or Billboard top 100 hits. In this case, one fan might have to admit that that the other genre is better, which would be a blow to the person’s identity of being a rap or country fan. Alternatively, they could focus on untestable beliefs like, “the lyrics really speak to me” or “my music sounds better”. It is much harder to prove those types of arguments wrong, so no one wins or loses the argument and both fans are free to continue thinking their favorite genre of music is the best.
A very neat study found that it is the untestable aspects of our beliefs we tend to focus on, particularly when these beliefs help us meet psychological motives (e.g. the need to belong, the need to see life as meaningful, the need to be a valued member of a group, etc.). This unfalsifiability does two things: allows us to more strongly hold our beliefs and protects our beliefs from being disproven.
This study chose to focus on two belief systems: religious and political beliefs. This study found that emphasizing untestable information allowed people to be more polarized in their beliefs. People who were religious reported stronger religious conviction after reading an article that said the existence of God could never be proven or disproven and people who opposed Obama rated him less favorably when issues that could not be tested (e.g. the happiness of Americans) were emphasized. The study also found that when a belief is threatened, people tend to turn to untestable reasons. People who had their religious beliefs threaten placed higher importance on unfalsifiable reasons for their belief (e.g. to get to go to heaven). Furthermore, when people read an article that agreed with their beliefs about same-sex marriage they were more likely to rate the article as factual. However, when people read an article that disagreed with their beliefs, they tended to rate the article as opinion.
Emphasizing the unfalsifiable aspects of a belief is not rational and can have negative side effects like allowing us to ignore valid facts in favor of how we feel. This can be dangerous because emphasizing how we feel over factual truths can hinder us from having rational discussions, seeing other’s point of views, and adopting the best solution for the problem. But in other cases, this irrationality can actually be good. Beliefs about ourselves and the world make up a key component of our identities, and challenges to these beliefs can be incredibly damaging to our well-being and self-worth. By emphasizing aspect of our belief systems that are unfalsifiable, we are able to protect our identities and keep feeling good about ourselves.
Friesen, J.P., Campbell, T.H., & Kay, A.C. (2015). The psychological advantage of unfalsifiability: The appeal of untestable religious and political ideologies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 515-529.