How Cognitive Bias Can Explain Post-Truth

By: Lee McIntyre

Our built-in biases help explain our post-truth era, when “alternative facts” replace actual facts, and feelings have more weight than evidence.

o say that facts are less important than feelings in shaping our beliefs about empirical matters seems new, at least in American politics. In the past we have faced serious challenges — even to the notion of truth itself — but never before have such challenges been so openly embraced as a strategy for the political subordination of reality, which is how I define “post-truth.” Here, “post” is meant to indicate not so much the idea that we are “past” truth in a temporal sense (as in “postwar”) but in the sense that truth has been eclipsed by less important matters like ideology.

One of the deepest roots of post-truth has been with us the longest, for it has been wired into our brains over the history of human evolution: cognitive bias. Psychologists for decades have been performing experiments that show that we are not quite as rational as we think. Some of this work bears directly on how we react in the face of unexpected or uncomfortable truths.

A central concept of human psychology is that we strive to avoid psychic discomfort. It is not a pleasant thing to think badly of oneself. Some psychologists call this “ego defense” (after Freudian theory), but whether we frame it within this paradigm or not, the concept is clear. It just feels better for us to think that we are smart, well-informed, capable people than that we are not. What happens when we are confronted with information that suggests that something we believe is untrue? It creates psychological tension. How could I be an intelligent person yet believe a falsehood? Only the strongest egos can stand up very long under a withering assault of self-criticism: “What a fool I was! The answer was right there in front of me the whole time, but I never bothered to look. I must be an idiot.” So the tension is often resolved by changing one of one’s beliefs.

It matters a great deal, however, which beliefs change. One would like to think that it should always be the belief that was shown to be mistaken. If we are wrong about a question of empirical reality — and we are finally confronted by the evidence — it would seem easiest to bring our beliefs back into harmony by changing the one that we now have good reason to doubt. But this is not always what happens. There are many ways to adjust a belief set, some rational and some not.

Three Classic Findings from Social Psychology

In 1957, Leon Festinger published his pioneering book “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” in which he offered the idea that we seek harmony between our beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, and experience psychic discomfort when they are out of balance. In seeking resolution, our primary goal is to preserve our sense of self-value.

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