When smart people are faced with challenges to their beliefs, they may use their smarts to defend their biases instead of overcoming them, a recent study found.

Groups of people were given a set of numbers to analyze. They were told the data was related to a study of a skin-rash treatment, and were asked to draw inferences based on the data. Not surprisingly, people with better math skills did a better job analyzing the data.

But there’s more to the story: A second group was presented with a similar set of numbers and also asked to draw inferences. It was basically the same problem, with one difference: This time they were told the study was about gun control.

The polarization was immediate. In fact, the people with the strongest math skills were the most polarized: They were more likely to twist the data to conform to their political beliefs.

Trainers’ take home: Don’t assume that learners with a lot of knowledge in a particular field will be more objective. You may have to work even harder with them to change their thinking.

Kahan, D., et al. (2013). Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government, The Cultural Cognition Project, Yale Law School, Working Paper No. 116.

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