Eureka: The intersection between science and culture
Last weekend, I started a new job, writing a monthly column on science and culture for The New York Times Magazine. The column is called Eureka. In the first edition, I look at “flip-flopping” politicians and examine what factors actually make people likely to change their minds on deeply held beliefs.
Hint: It’s not data and evidence.
Scientists have been studying attitudes and preferences for more than a century; those topics are bound to the origins of social psychology itself. Some of the earliest research, like William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s five-volume set, “The Polish Peasant in Europe and America,” published in 1918, revolved around the attitudes of immigrants: how they lived, what their neighbors thought of them, how they changed as they became Americans.
In the last decade, psychologists have focused increasing attention on moral attitudes. Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the Stern School of Business at New York University and author of “The Righteous Mind,” told me that researchers have been especially interested in the way emotions and attitudes interact. Moral attitudes are especially difficult to change, Haidt said, because the emotions attached to those preferences largely define who we are. “Certain beliefs are so important for a society or group that they become part of how you prove your identity,” he said. “It’s as though we circle around these ideas. It’s how we become one.”