Obstacles to the spread of unintuitive beliefs


  • Mercier Hugo
  • Majima Yoshimasa
  • Claidière Nicolas
  • Léone Jessica


  • Unintuitive beliefs
  • Cultural evolution
  • Description-experience gap
  • Argument from expertise
  • Deference

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Many socially significant beliefs are unintuitive, from the harmlessness of GMOs to the efficacy of vaccination , and they are acquired via deference toward individuals who are more confident, more competent or a majority. In the two-step flow model of communication, a first group of individuals acquires some beliefs through deference and then spreads these beliefs more broadly. Ideally, these individuals should be able to explain why they deferred to a given source-to provide arguments from expertise-and others should find these arguments convincing. We test these requirements using a perceptual task with participants from the US and Japan. In Experiment 1, participants were provided with first-hand evidence that they should defer to an expert, leading a majority of participants to adopt the expert's answer. However, when attempting to pass on this answer, only a minority of those participants used arguments from expertise. In Experiment 2, participants receive an argument from expertise describing the expert's competence, instead of witnessing it first-hand. This leads to a significant drop in deference compared with Experiment 1. These experiments highlight significant obstacles to the transmission of unintuitive beliefs.

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