To know means to feel safe

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The aim of the research conducted at the Institute of Psychology of the Jagiellonian University is to reveal the mechanisms behind the creation of social knowledge, which originate from opinions, convictions and beliefs. The scientists aim to assess the extent to which beliefs and our attachment to them are dependent on the satisfaction of fundamental human needs: the need for understanding, certainty and safety.

Every day we are bombarded with news about celebrities, politics, climate change, economic recession, but also about "recipes" for a successful love life, cultivating plants or even about the useful properties of a new food processor. At the same time we have a sense of control over what we choose to believe and what we do not; what we consider valuable and what we reject as unimportant. In other words, it seems that we shape our knowledge about the world on our own and that we are able to use it in a conscious, rational manner, by choosing from various opinions. At the same time it is surprising how deeply we tend to defend judgments based on scarce, unreliable information, how upset we can become by the beliefs held by others and how readily we deny others the right to express their own opinions.

"There was an explosion during the Boston marathon.
(…) We immediately create possible explanations of what happened.
We do so because we want to understand the surrounding reality."
Boston, April 2013. Photo: © Marcio Silva |

The need for unambiguous explanation

Obtaining knowledge about the social world significantly influences our everyday activity. "The manner in which we gather knowledge influences the way in which we will later come to use it. This is to say, the formulation of judgments, convictions and decisions comes to inform our perception of the correctness and accuracy of such statements. Obtaining knowledge is a process that consists of testing and verifying hypotheses related to a given phenomenon. For example, when we hear that there was an explosion during the Boston marathon, as a cause of which many people died and even more were injured, we immediately create a possible explanation of what happened. We do so because we want to understand our surrounding reality. This is one of our elementary needs as human beings. A lack of knowledge causes us to feel helpless, while knowledge, even if it is subjective and unverified offers us a sense of control over our lives," explains Professor Małgorzata Kossowska, who coordinates the research on cognition as a way of establishing a sense of security. Some people are instantly certain that there was a terrorist attack. They do not need evidence, they just know. Others create various scenarios: it might have been a terrorist attack or an accident, or it might have been another crazy person directing the attention of society toward his or her own personal tragedy, or something completely different might have happened. Those who belong to the first group formulate their opinion quickly and are convinced it is right. They will only look for information that confirms it, without paying attention to any other data. Conflicting information will only strengthen their belief that their opinion is true, as it is commonly known that the media lie, and the government, the CIA, Jews, Al-Qaida (choose any) have control over information and participate in a conspiracy against citizens. Such thinking results from the necessary, unconscious defence of immediately formulated beliefs.

Members of the other group will search for information that allows them to determine what really happened. Even if they formulate their own opinion, they will be willing to change it in order to adapt it to current knowledge. This process through which knowledge emerges, is analysed by psychologists from the Jagiellonian University in the laboratory.

Can liberals be radical?

Information should serve us. The firmer our position, the more we convince ourselves that what we already know is true, the more that position is shared by the majority of society, the more we feel our anxieties and insecurities assuaged. This is why we all gravitate toward clear, explicit beliefs. Their simplicity releases us from having to search for answers to the question: "What is the world like?" on our own. To many people, independent thinking poses a threat, appearing as an insurmountable obstacle.

"We analyze this process by evoking information-related insecurity in the subjects of research. For example, we ask the participants to read a text about economic recession, which discusses the fact that recession is constantly deepening to affect a growing proportion of society. After reading the text, the participants show higher emotional discomfort in comparison to those who did not read it. They also manifest more radical political or religious views," Professor Kossowska explains.

Other ways to evoke insecurity in the laboratory include: time pressure, a cognitive task involving a conflict (which forces the participants to reactions other than spontaneous or obvious ones) or information about low performance of test participants. These processes are very subtle, yet quite easy to initiate, even in the laboratory.

Thus, experimental research proves that in a situation of increased insecurity, any views may provide comfort. The easiest way to explain this phenomenon is to see it in the context of political and ideological views. Conservative views are well systematized; they refer to quite simple ways of perceiving the world and are easily strengthened by this content. But liberal views can also perform a similar function, as long as they are sufficiently clear. With the use of precise measurement techniques, scientists also show that in a situation of insecurity, our beliefs and convictions (regardless of their content) tend to radicalize. It turns out that radical views, which reduce negative emotions, may provide us with a greater sense of security.

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Useful science

The proposed research program is a breakthrough in the existing approach to explaining social phenomena. It should be noted that the team of scientists combines knowledge from various disciplines (social psychology, cognitive psychology, psychophysiology, and neuroscience) which allows for a full description of the mechanisms responsible for obtaining and using knowledge and thus the various social phenomena originating from obtaining knowledge.

"We also believe that the results of our work will not only improve the identification of social phenomena, but that they will also contribute to the understanding of the relationship between motivation, disclosing emotion and cognition in general, which may be important for psychologists specializing in other areas," the research coordinator explains.

First of all, however, the results of these studies may be applied in practice in at least two essential areas. Firstly, scientists propose the application of a useful model which will enable us to understand contemporary social problems (radicalization of ideological views, prejudices and social conflicts) better than existing models. This will help us clarify, for example, how the insecurity which occurs in a situation of economic and/or political recession or crisis can lead to a group mentality, willingness to act aggressively towards strangers, the development of fundamentalist, closed ideologies and the support for authoritarian leaders. We know such situations perfectly well from the observation of protests and the creation of new civil movements in Greece, Spain (the Outraged movement) or the USA.

Secondly, the method developed by our team will enable us to explain the tendency to radicalize attitudes in the most socially excluded groups (e.g., the unemployed or the poor), their willingness to support extreme movements and the causes of difficulties in joining the mainstream of social life. The model also provides clear conclusions related to corrective measures, trainings and education.

Research team: Professor Małgorzata Kossowska, Marcin Bukowski, PhD; Maciej Sekerdej, PhD; Katarzyna Jaśko, PhD; Aneta Czernatowicz-Kukuczka, PhD; Sindhuja Sankaran, PhD; Eligiusz Wronka, PhD; Mirosław Wyczesany, PhD; Gabriela Czarnek, MA; Piotr Dragon, MA; Ewa Szumowska, MA; Paweł Strojny, MA, Agnieszka Strojny, MA; Joanna Grzymała–Moszczyńska, MA

The works are conducted with the participation of scientists from the University of Warsaw and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Applied Cognitive Studies. The project is carried out internationally, in co-operation with scientists from the Universities in: Ghent, Grenada, London, Tel Aviv and Maryland.