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Why truth is under fire

Studies have long shown that human beings are resistant to information that upsets their worldview. But why do we appear so prone to that temptation now? 

Students at the univerSity of Notre Dame in South Bend, ind., participate in an event to respectfully share divergent political views.
Alfredo Sosa/Staff/File
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The Monitor’s political editor, Liz Marlantes, recently alerted me to a new study by the respected RAND Corp. think tank. “Truth Decay” looks at why so many of us disagree about basic facts and have so little trust in formerly respected sources of information.

Here’s my executive summary: We all need to look in the mirror.

The study suggests that a perfect storm of factors is conspiring to manipulate how we see truth, and the danger is not being aware of how those factors can mold our thinking.

Some are not new. Studies have long shown that human beings are resistant to information that upsets their worldview. “People do not just maintain preexisting beliefs: Being confronted with corrective information can make misperceptions more ingrained and cause people to become less willing to consider alternatives,” the authors note.

But why do we appear so prone to that temptation now? 

Among the more obvious answers is the influence of social media and 24-hour news. Social media throw out vast quantities of incorrect information; 24-hour news fills much of its day with opinion and commentary. In large doses, neither is terribly helpful. (Speaking of large doses, did you know that the average number of tweets per day rose from 5,000 in 2007 to 500 million in 2013?)

Among the less obvious is the fact that we increasingly live and vote with people who think the way we do. While the study touches on Britain and France, it focuses on the United States, where politicians gerrymander districts with “laser-like precision,” as one federal judge put it. The goal: to artificially play up divisions for political gain.

But even beyond gerrymandering, Americans are living in communities where there is less diversity of opinion. In the 2016 presidential election, 1,196 counties were decided by margins greater than 50 percent. From 1976 to 2012, the median number of such landslide counties was 450.

Broader forces occasionally resurface, too. The “yellow journalism” of the 1890s was the result of seismic changes in America’s social, racial, and economic fabric: a rise of income inequality as the economy evolved to urban manufacturing, a perceived loss of agrarian values, a large demographic shift fueled by immigration. A recession stoked anger against elites and the government and kindled a populist backlash. We’re seeing echoes of those things now. 

One antidote, the study suggests, is simply being more self-aware: “[B]eing aware of bias, either one’s own or that of a source, can reduce the effects of ... bias.” But it also hints at a deeper antidote: “One study found that forcing people to articulate alternative viewpoints or to cite evidence of a differing explanation can reduce the influence of biases over beliefs by forcing consideration of another perspective and engagement in critical thinking.”

It is a prescription for each of us to leave our mental comfort zones and consent to see the world in new ways. And it is an apt summary of how the Monitor sees its role in journalism today.

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