Natural childbirth advocates would rather be validated than be correct

In the wake of the presidential election, I wrote about the echo chamber that characterizes both Republican conservatism and natural childbirth advocacy.

Conservatives were utterly shocked by the 2012 election results. It wasn’t just that their candidates and issues lost, but that they didn’t anticipate that they would lose. It is a wake up call for conservatives who live in their own insular online, television and print world, where conservative bloggers affirm their conservative beliefs, where Fox News tells them what they want to hear and where conservative publishing houses produce an unending stream of vitriolic conservative books. It is also a wake up call for others who live in their own insular online communities, like NCB and homebirth advocates.

But no one forced the conservatives to deprive themselves of accurate information by watching Fox News and no one forces natural childbirth advocates to deprive themselves of accurate information by reading books and websites written by other natural childbirth advocates. Why do they do it? It’s because they’d rather be validated than be correct.

In the world of natural childbirth advocacy, they don’t call it validation, though; that’s too clinical. They call it “support.”

Hart et al. explore this phenomenon in their paper Feeling Validated Versus Being Correct: A Meta-Analysis of Selective Exposure to Information. The authors explain:

… Receiving information that supports one’s position on an issue allows people to conclude that their views are correct but may often obscure reality. In contrast, receiving information that contradicts one’s view on an issue can cause people to feel misled or ignorant but may allow access to a valid representation of reality. Therefore, understanding how people strive to feel validated versus to be correct is critical to explicating how they select information about an issue when several alternatives are present. (my emphasis)

Avoiding cognitive dissonance is central to the search for validation:

… According to dissonance theory, after people commit to an attitude, belief, or decision, they gather supportive information and neglect unsupportive information to avoid or eliminate the unpleasant state of postdecisional conflict known as cognitive dissonance.

Minimizing cognitive dissonance requires selective exposure, seeking out information sources that confirm existing beliefs and avoiding sources that undermine those beliefs. For example:

In one of the initial studies testing selective exposure, mothers reported their belief that child development was predominantly influenced by genetic or environmental factors and then could choose to hear a speech that advocated either position. … [M]others overwhelmingly chose the speech that favored their view on the issue.

There is an exception, however. People were happy to view uncongenial information if they felt it was easy to refute.

Books, websites and Internet communities that promote pseudoscience are quite overt in their preference for validation over accuracy. Consider this reminder that appeared at the top of the Mothering Unassisted Childbirth Forum:

… This is a forum for support, respectful requests for information, and sharing of ideas and experiences. While we will not restrict discussions only to those who birth without professional attendants, proselytizing against UC will not be permitted…

Mothering has been even more overt in its insistence on selective exposure to information about vaccination:

… Though Mothering does not take a pro or anti stand on vaccinations, we will not host threads on the merits of mandatory vaccine, or a purely pro vaccination view point as this is not conducive to the learning process.

They’re not anti-vaccine but they refuse to print a pro-vaccine point of view? Whom do they think they are kidding? Of course, it’s hardly surprising if the primary purpose of the forum is to provide readers with validation, rather than to transmit accurate information.

Those who run natural childbirth blogs, websites and Facebook pages are quite upfront about their determination to minimize cognitive dissonance by restricting the free flow of information. Only information that supports a predetermined point of view is allowed. Anything else must be deleted. That’s why they ban commentors who dare to dissent. To the extent that any real scientific papers are discussed, they are limited only to those that can be easily refuted or those papers (usually poor) that confirmed the approved point of view. The rest of the vast scientific literature is ignored.

That’s why it is impossible to become “educated” when reading pseudoscience websites. In fact, claiming to be “educated” about childbirth by doing “research” on the Web is the surest sound of profound ignorance.

Adapted from a piece that first appeared in November 2010.