In response to couple days ago's post on motivated perception of hot/cold weather, Random Assignment/David Nussbaum asked a question ineresting enough for me to give an answer so long & drawn out & worthy of a better response that I decided to turn the exchange into a separate post in the hope that it might provoke others to weigh in.
I'm curious, have you ever analyzed what happens in cases where beliefs do (eventually) yield to evidence? What does that process look like in the real world? I know you can get people to be more open using self-affirmation, but I'm thinking more about changes that happen "in the wild". So when allowing women to vote didn't destroy the entire moral fabric of society (leaving the opportunity to do so open to gay marriage), how did people's views change? Did they come to accept that they were wrong? Or did the people who believed it would just get replaced by new people who didn't believe it after they died? For a topic like climate change that's probably too slow a process.
Dave--that's an interesting question b/c of the "in the wild" part.
As I see it, what are talking about is how people who disagree about some risk or other policy-consequenital fact converge following a period of culturally motivated dissensus. We reject the explanation "b/c they finally all see the evidence & agree" on the ground that it doesn't get the premise: that in this condition people will assign weight to evidence only when it is congenial to their cultural predispositions. Accordingly, in cases in which people converge after being "shown evidence," the explanation, to be interesting, has to identify how & why the cultural meaning of the issue changed, relieving the pressure on both sides to engage in biased assimilation of the evidence.
You note that in laboratory settings, "self-affirmation" can "buffer" the identity threatening implications of a proposition that is hostile to a message recipient's cultural identity and thereby neutralize the influence of motivated reasoning (leading to open-mindedness). See Sherman, D.K. & Cohen, G.L. in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 38 183-242 (Academic Press, 2006).
But you ask about real world examples.
My favorite is smoking. People love to say, "See: the impact of the Surgeon General's REport of 1964 shows that people eventually can be persuaded by evidence." In fact, peak for cigarette smoking in US occurred circa 1979. It declined after public health advocates initiated a vicious and viciously successful social meaning campaign that obliterated all the various positive cultural meanings associated with smoking (or most of them) and stigmatized cigarette use as "stupid," "weak," "inconsiderate," "repulsive," etc. At that point, people not only accepted the evidence in the SG's 1964 Report but started to accept all sorts of overblown claims about 2nd hand smoke etc. Yup -- it was all about "eventually accepting evidence"; nothing to do with social meanings there... (not). (I discuss the issue, and relevant sources including 2000 Surgeon General's Report on smoking & social norms, in an essay entitled The Cognitively Illiberal State.)
But that's not really responsive to your query, or at least isn't as I'm going to understand it. That was "in the wild" but reflects a deliberate and calculated effort (although not a very precise one; the public health people have a heavily stocked soicial-meaning regulation arsenal, but every weapon in it is nuclear...) to obliterate a contested meaning. What about social meanings dying out by "natural causes"-- that is, through unguided historical and social influences? That certainly has to happen and it would be really cool & instructive to have examples.
Nuclear power is close, I think. In any case, the issue isn't nearly so radioactive (so to speak) for the left as it was in 1970s & earily 1980s. Egalitarian communitarians (of sort who agitated Douglas & Wildavsky into emitting Risk & Culture) were so successful at stigmatizing nuclear that it basically was taken off the table & disappeared from cultural consciousness; guess its toxic meaning had a half life of 30 yrs or so. But I overstate. The issue of nuclear waste does still generate cultural division, just not as much as it used to or maybe just not as much as, say, climate change or guns. Likely it could be reactivated-- who knows.
But in any event, it would be nice to have an account of culturally contested risks or like factual issues that really did die out & become extinct all on their own.
You mention the dispute over consequences of women's suffrage ... Guess you've never read this? John, R.L., Jr & Lawrence, W.K. Did Women's Suffrage Change the Size and Scope of Government? Journal of Political Economy 107, 1163-1198 (1999).