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When You Can’t See the Forest For the Trees

October 16, 2014 |

confused-manI had a hard time naming this entry. I went with the kinder, gentler version, but it could have just as easily been called: “Don’t let the facts get in the way of your delusion” or “When people are wrong, but still swear they are right.”

Social media is a fun place to find all kinds of opinions about everything.  And I do mean everything.  What would never be uttered in public in such a blunt and blatant fashion, is proudly displayed in the open world, for all to see.

A Liberal friend posted something about George W Bush, (who he despises with such vigor, that he actually spits when he has to speak his name.)  In his mind, good old George should be tried for crimes against humanity, he is also responsible for everything from volcanic ash, dying puppies, to Ebola, it would seem.

Reading through comments of like-minded folks, it’s interesting to see just how easily untruths, outright lies and fabrications are regurgitated, high-fived and reaffirmed.   When someone posts even something by way of a minor correction, they are vilified, bullied and abused.  It’s interesting to watch people so married to their beliefs, so married to their view of the world, that even when confronted with absolute proof that there is something incorrect in their “facts”, those being corrected can become completely obstinate or unhinged.   Truth and actual facts will viewed as a direct confrontation, a threat, and the reaction to that threat is swift and vicious.  Facts be damned.

There are interesting studies that confirm that people become extremely agitated when they’re told that what they believe to be correct, is in fact, wrong.  Even in the light of being shown absolute fact, a surprisingly high percentage of people will easily dismiss those facts because they do not fit with their beliefs, no matter how wrong their beliefs are proven to be.   The phenomenon known as “backfire” is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

It’s fascinating to see how the human brain and psyche work, and how it strives to protect itself.  When it comes to self-affirmation, self-awareness, and the human ego, the need to save face is a powerful one.  The need to believe that they are right at all costs, can cause even the most logical person to dismiss irrefutable facts, in order to reaffirm their misconceptions.  The whole idea of resisting cognitive dissonance or ones’ ability to actually allow it to occur, was found to be surprisingly common.

A University of Michigan study found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger. – See more at: When Facts Backfire

So whether it’s a piece of spread misinformation by a politician or a voter who chooses to vote for someone who has been proven to be less than honest; –  OVER AND OVER, it seems that there are large numbers of people who would rather live gleefully by repeating and believing falsehoods because it re-enforces their defense mechanism of saving “face”.   Those who understand that aspect of psychology can use this in a very devious way to obtain or maintain control or fight to gain political office or influence.

This whole model allows politicians to use misinformation to bolster and rally their supporters by feeding into people’s pre-existing beliefs.  All that is needed is to keep repeating a lie until enough people believe it to be true.  It channels one of Saul Alinsky’s 12 rules – If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

Sadly this modus operandi has driven its tentacles into every aspect of our democracy.   Truth in democracy can often become more about who can tell (and get others to repeat) the more convincing set of lies.   Facts that don’t suit a politician’s purpose are nothing more than platforms that need to be retrofitted and manipulated to feed to those who are so biased and married to their partisan beliefs that they will spew the misinformation you feed them, un-researched and unchallenged.

The under-informed and uninformed are of particular usefulness.  One needs only to feed rumors and outright falsehoods to those uniformed, so that they can be repeated, in an effort to muddy the waters against an opponent.  The politicians benefit significantly by keeping these types of people agitated.

In other words, a politician can tell a supporter that his opponent supports putting a dump in their  neighborhood, it could be an outright lie, however, because it comes from someone that is viewed as “their team”, someone who in their mind speaks the truth and happens to like – even when shown that what was told is an outright lie, an overwhelming amount of supporters will take the lie as truth, no questions asked, and further dig in their heels to believe that lie, when shown irrefutable proof that what they believe, is simply not true.

Studies consistently confirm that people are more likely to submissively accept such lies when it comes from someone they view as part of “their team” and will actively reject most if not all information that comes from someone who is viewed as an opponent. This is known as “motivated reasoning”.

James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois also makes a very apt observation during his experiment of people whose bias lead to extremely incorrect knowledge of what they believed to be “facts”.  “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their so called factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them, will be least likely to do so.”

Facts don’t appear to matter after all.  Kind of scary, isn’t it?




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Category: Canada

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