The surprising thing, disappointing even, is that people aren't at all humble when they're doubtful. Just the opposite, in fact.
A new study from two Northwestern University marketing professors, David Gal and Derek Rucker, published in the journal Psychological Science, shows that people who were led to doubt something they believed in later proselytized more on behalf of their belief. "People proselytize to have their beliefs affirmed or validated," Rucker tells AOL News. And they need these beliefs validated because, in the end, they're all we have. Our beliefs are ourselves.
Gal and Rucker conducted three experiments in which people held various beliefs about consumer products. (The two men are, again, marketing professors, so it seemed organic to deal with thoughts tied to consumerism, though Rucker says political and religious beliefs are a logical extension of their study.)
The first study tested 88 MBA students' beliefs about animal testing on consumer products. The students read a paragraph about how animal testing is performed, said whether they still agreed with the practice, and then were asked to write about it, in an attempt to persuade others. Those who doubted what they were saying ended up writing more.
The second experiment primed the participants, some of whom were asked to describe two instances in which they felt uncertain. After that, these people were told to persuade someone whose diet was unlike their own (vegetarian, if the participant was a meat-eater, etc.) of the advantages of the participant's diet. Same thing here: The people who had been primed to first discuss a situation in which they were uncertain wrote longer essays about the merits of their diet.
The third experiment yielded similar results. Undergrad students who used Macs were asked to persuade PC users. They did so, with a great deal of verbosity, if they thought the PC user would be open to hearing from the other side.
The point of it all, Rucker says, is that our beliefs are who we are, even (especially) our consumer beliefs. When those beliefs are challenged, we are challenged, and we spend more time trying to convince others of the product's merit, because really we're talking about our own.
And though this study looks at the seeming frivolity of what we like to spend money on, other studies have looked at our more substantive beliefs.
Humans act in these strange ways because our chosen surroundings -- where we live, what we buy, how we vote, which church (if any) we attend -- are our definitions of self. Undermine those and we'll either look to surround ourselves with more of our comforting stuff -- as this fascinating paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research last year shows -- or we'll do what Rucker and Gal (and Festinger before them) say we'll do: We'll try to convince you that we're right even when we aren't so sure ourselves.
"The present research," Gal and Rucker write, "offers a warning to anyone on the receiving end of an advocacy attempt." Another reason to avoid those caffeinated late-night infomercials.