Collective Delusions: Social Identity and Scientific Misbeliefs

NOMIS Research Project

Many commentators have warned of a recent global trend of intensifying polarization. An especially worrying manifestation of this involves polarization not only over values and preferences, but over factual beliefs. For instance, Republicans and Democrats in the US disagree about the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential election, while Remainers and Brexiteers in the UK disagree about the economic benefits of leaving the European Union.

At present, we lack a detailed understanding of the depth and dynamics of these disagreements. In particular, the extent to which apparently distorted beliefs and inferences are disingenuous and performative—i.e., “expressive” rather than sincere—is unclear. Do partisans really disagree about fundamental facts, or are they playing to the gallery? The project Collective Delusions: Social Identity and Scientific Misbeliefs seeks to make an important contribution to this endeavor.

By combining theory, methods and expertise from multiple disciplines (e.g., experimental economic games, surveys, computerized tasks, neuroimaging) the project aims to illuminate the extent to which beliefs and decisions are distorted by motives to signal, protect and preserve valued social identities, and to understand the cognitive and neural mechanisms that mediate identity-protective cognition.

The Collective Delusions project is being led by Ryan McKay at Royal Holloway, University of London (UK).