Sara Gorman is a public health and behavioral science expert who has written extensively about global health, science communication, psychology, and mental health. Her recent work explores the psychology behind irrational health beliefs and decisions, and also provides advice for how the general public can discriminate between valid and invalid science. Sara is co-founder of Critica, a community committed to making rational decisions about health and security. Sara spoke at TEDMED 2017, and you can watch her Talk here.
TEDMED: Your 2017 TEDMED Talk explores the psychology behind irrational health beliefs and why we stubbornly cling to them, even in the face of conflicting scientific evidence. It’s fascinating work—how did you first get interested in this area of study?
Sara Gorman: I became interested in this area of study after learning about increasingly widespread, unfounded beliefs that routine childhood vaccines were causing autism and other adverse health effects in children. These beliefs had developed largely from a fraudulent study that was retracted by the journal it was published in and yet people were still holding onto the belief upwards of a decade later. I came to understand that, despite what a lot of people thought, these erroneous beliefs had nothing to do with a person’s intelligence or even knowledge of and familiarity with science. Rather, there were strong psychological and social factors that were at play here and this is what I set out to study. As I learned more about these psychological and social factors, I realized that the erroneous belief in a link between vaccines and autism was not the only area in health and medicine in which people were insisting on false ideas despite the evidence. The pattern cropped up in unfounded beliefs that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, in beliefs that keeping a gun in the home makes a person safer, and even in practices by healthcare providers that are not evidence-based.
TM: As you say in your Talk, “Science depends on updating constantly with new information, but our brains do everything they can to keep us from changing our minds.” The best scientists must be willing to be proven wrong—going as far as to purposely seek it out. What can we learn from them?
SG: Scientists are trained to be skeptics and to look for things that will disprove their beliefs. When a study is published, the logical next step is for someone to try to replicate it, and in many cases, failure to replicate can come to show that the original findings may have been a fluke. Scientists know that they must constantly question everything they think is true and even ask themselves why they believe something. They must expose the origins of any belief or tenet and understand whether or not they believe the evidence upon which these assumptions are based. All of us could benefit from approaching most questions in life through this lens. It requires a lot of self-awareness about how we form our beliefs and a lot of questioning and re-assessing once we have formed them. We should re-examine beliefs that were formed a long time ago and make sure they are still valid, just as scientists never take old research for granted but constantly try to evaluate whether it is still valid or whether something has changed.
Of course, one of the most important things I emphasize in my book and in my TEDMED Talk is that scientists are just as prone to errors in judgment and belief as the rest of us, so even they must always continue to work on honing these skills of skepticism and constant re-evaluation of their own beliefs.
TM: In your Talk, you tell a funny story about how you were convinced you hated the ballet—and you were very vocal about your feelings—until your boyfriend (and now husband) wanted to take you there. You walked the audience through the process of how you allowed yourself to change your mind regarding this firmly rooted belief about yourself. Could you walk us through the process of how a person can learn to accept something, such as a new scientific finding or a revelation in the news, that goes against their beliefs?
SG: There is not any one formula that will always work for everyone but there are some general guidelines that people can follow. To begin with, it’s important to understand how you formed the belief in the first place. Ask yourself under what circumstances you came to believe what you believe. Were you very emotional or even very distracted at the time? Sometimes that can color our initial evaluation of the evidence and make us decide that we think something is true even if it’s not. Once you’ve gained a better understanding of how you formed the first belief, try to investigate what the enablers of the belief are for you. Does holding this belief help you connect with an important person in your life or hold on to an important part of your identity? You want to be able to understand what values and motivators outside of the evidence itself might be influencing you to believe something. Then, assess what the barriers to changing your mind might be. Would changing your mind on this topic be likely to isolate you from a group or identity that’s very important to you? Finally, expose yourself to the new idea slowly. Don’t just radically change directions on something and announce your new beliefs to the world overnight. That will be too intimidating. If you decide you want to change your mind about something, try living a few hours or even a day in your new belief. Try it on for size and just see how it feels. Then gradually increase your exposure to the new belief until you feel more comfortable. Over time, it will hopefully become more natural and less scary to change your mind.
TM: What was the TEDMED experience like for you?
SG: It was absolutely exhilarating. I felt like a celebrity. When I was in school, I always did a lot of theater and have really missed the stage ever since. Being on the TEDMED stage reminded me of those experiences, which I remember with fondness and nostalgia. The TEDMED community is also incredibly warm and inviting! I am so lucky to have been included in 2017 and look forward to following TEDMED for many years to come.