Have you ever wondered how people can become convinced of something, beyond all doubt? Or have you ever been convinced yourself and adamant about it to others?
How we get to this state of holding strong convictions and how we deal with being wrong or having our convictions challenged by others, is the topic of a documentary that filmmaker Sheila Marshall and myself are working on. With the support of the RSA, we have just launched a Kickstarter campaign to finish the film.
Why we made the film
Convictions (regardless of whether they are right or wrong) drive the polarisation of many of the public and political debates that the RSA and its Fellows are seeking solutions for. Everything from immigration and the welfare state to human rights, foreign interventions, health care, education and public debates over science such as climate change, vaccines and evolution.
What these issues have in common is that there are people with strongly-held convictions on either side who think “I am right and you are wrong”. In recent years, some of these debates have become increasingly polarised and gridlocked, and paradoxically, the more people argue the more they become convinced that they are right.
As a neuroscientist, my interest lies in understanding how our brains impose order and meaning on the sights and sounds coming from the world around us. As a citizen, I wanted to understand how people can look at the same events and come to such contrasting views about the important issues in society. In conversations with my friend and filmmaker Sheila Marshall, I increasingly put the two interests together, and saw the need to illustrate the scientific insights that exist in this area to a wider public.
When we came across the story of a group of people in the US who came to believe the world would end on 21 May 2011, we embarked on making a documentary, Right Between Your Ears. One of our aims was to understand how it feels to believe this extraordinary truth. A second aim was to capture a unique situation: unlike in our gridlocked public debates, these people would find out if their conviction was right or not, on that given date.
Beyond the public sphere, our predisposition to “feel right” also affects our personal lives. One popular saying goes: “You can be right or be in a relationship.” Other examples are how we (rightly or wrongly) justify the decisions we make in our professional careers, how we take, or fail to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, and how we react to conflicts with family, friends and work colleagues.
Right Between Your Ears explores what lies at the heart of this by fusing the story of the believers before, during and after 21 May, with interviews with social psychologists, behavioural economists and a historian. One of the believers also takes part in a brain scan study about belief. Together, these perspectives give a unique insight into the nature of belief, and turn the film from a story about “them” and “their” beliefs, into a story of how we believe.
An important aspect of 21st Century Enlightenment
By giving insight into the nature of our convictions, the film offers new ways to think about those situations in life where we disagree fundamentally with other people. Our “common-sense” reaction is to denigrate them for their different views. But clearly, it is not an acceptable situation if people with opposing convictions are locked into accusing each other of the same stupidity or short-sightedness.
From my perspective as a neuroscientist, I therefore see it as an essential part of the 21st Century Enlightenment revolution that we find different ways to think about the nature of our fundamental disagreements. By meeting many interested people during the course of working on the film, our work is already having an impact. For instance, I contributed a chapter about the relevant neuroscience and psychology to a UCL policy report on the communication of climate science, and am just completing a book chapter where the same insights are applied to controversies over educational practices. I also give regular workshops to enable the next generation of science communicators to deal more constructively with the communication of contested issues. But we need your help to spread the impact that this work can have even further.
How can you get involved?
We are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise the final post production funding for the film, and have some great rewards for your support in return. Please view, back and share our campaign page via this link: http://bit.ly/rightbtw and help us raise £12,000 before 21 May 2015.
To ensure the long-term impact of the film, we will work together with organisations who can benefit from the film in their own work. For instance, groups interested in conflict resolution and dialogue, and educational organisations and schools. We know we have many like-minded Fellows in the RSA, so please do get in touch if our aims have inspired you via email@example.com or follow @rightbtw on Twitter.
Dr Kris De Meyer FRSA is a neuroscientist and co-producer of “Right Between Your Ears”, a documentary exploring how we can become convinced we’re right, even when we’re wrong.