The gnashing of teeth, the cries of incredulity, and the shaking of fists heavenward pleading, “why don’t facts matter?” – my own teeth, cries, and shaking fists – have just about worn me out.
During this campaign season, the bar for human decency has been reset lower and lower. When it was finally on the floor, the Trump-on-the-bus video aired and the bar was quickly taken to the basement. Cue gnashing, cries, fists.
Trump’s business success has been exposed as coming at the expense of investors and refusing to pay business contractors too small to fight him. He has refused to release his taxes making facts about his financial health, donations, and relationships unavailable to voters. His inflammatory rhetoric has exposed the unseemly underbelly of hate, racism, misogyny, self-pity, and violence in this country that had been mostly hidden previously by a mask of self-control and civility.
He has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks, women, journalists – blah, blah, blah, fill in your favorite outrage here __________.
Trump is currently under investigation, and indictment for fraud and child rape, with court dates set for later in November and December. New York has suspended operation of his charitable foundation, proven to be uncharitable except to himself. Numerous allegations of sexual assault over the past 20 years have surfaced. His response is that those women were not attractive enough to assault and he is going to sue them all.
Yet, with only days left the race is tightening. For some reason, the seriousness of these established facts and his documented crimes do not make one bit of difference to his supporters. Instead, they believe that Hillary Clinton is far worse, citing examples of corruption and criminality that have been exhaustively investigated and repeatedly proven false.
But somehow, Hillary sending emails through a private server is equal to Trump’s predatory and proven criminal behavior. These things are not equal.
Neither is their knowledge of government, governing, public service, or the world. Just because Clinton & Trump are opposing candidates, doesn’t make them equally qualified to hold the office.
Why? I ask again, why don’t these facts matter. Now, before you get all judgey and start arguing the “facts” as I’ve presented them, there’s a much more interesting discussion to be had. I’m both sad and relieved to report that there is a reason for the unreasonable behavior we’ve been witness to.
Facts don’t matter, they never have, and, they never will
And here’s why. Our brains serve as gatekeepers for information. They let information in, but they organize and filter it looking for patterns. The patterns they identify match our existing beliefs. We can only understand something new if presented in terms of something we already know. We accept information that supports our beliefs, and reject information that doesn’t. In short, we don’t seek information, we seek confirmation.
To do the heavy lifting in science-based research I chose three people, out of many, whose work on the role of beliefs versus reason in processing information are the basis for my conclusion.
If we only accept information consistent with our beliefs, where do our beliefs come from?
Dr. Michael Shermer explains, “most of the time we form our beliefs not because of empirical evidence or logical reasoning. Rather, we have belief preferences for a host of psychological and emotional reasons, including parental or sibling influences, peer pressure, education, and life experience. We then search for evidence to support these predilections. This is the main reason why smart people believe weird things. Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrive at for non-smart reasons.”
Did Lady Gaga get it right?
“The evidence from behavior genetics and twin studies indicating that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are accounted for by genetics.” So, according to Shermer, Trump supporters were born that way.
In his work, Shermer debunks myths, superstitions, and urban legends — and explains why we believe them. Along with publishing Skeptic Magazine, he’s the author of Why People Believe Weird Things (TED talk by the same name) and The Mind of the Market . “I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know.”
The thinks you can think
In his book, Don’t Believe Everything you Think, Thomas Kida writes, “We have to proportion our belief to the amount of evidence for or against that belief. If the evidence doesn’t strongly support a belief, a leap of faith will never establish the belief as true. We simply can’t make something true just by believing it.”
Kida’s book examines the basic mistakes we make in thinking and points to science-based approaches to help us combat our belief-based information gathering. “Research has found that two factors significantly influence how we perceive the world – we see what we expect to see and what we want to see… We have a strong motivation to see things that we want to see in order to maintain consistency in our beliefs… By avoiding contradictory data, it seems that there’s more data supporting our preconceptions, which, of course, reinforces our belief that we were right all along”
OK, now my Facebook feed and troll comments are all starting to make much more sense. And so does the fact that 90% of what shows up is stuff that matches my beliefs. In case you were wondering, I believe that Hillary Clinton will be a great president, I believe that kittens, dogs, and other animals offer the most rewarding relationships, and, I believe that the slightest possibility of irony is the best reason to get up in the morning.
Think 1 and Think 2
Or System 1 and System 2, the terms created by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, describe the way we innately respond to, and process, information to make decisions.
An example of System 1 processing is driving a familiar route. We’ve done it so much, that we don’t have to “think” about it anymore. It’s automatic. We can listen to the radio, have a conversation, think about what we want for dinner, all while safely getting home. Using the same example, System 2 processing takes over if someone cuts you off, or swerves in front of you. You quickly focus on the facts in front of you and take evasive, life-saving action.
Thinking Fast and Slow is the book Kahneman wrote that details all of his experiments over the years that resulted in the 2-system approach to understanding the mind.
System 1, think fast, is the automatic and unconscious process by which our brains recognize what we know from experience and repetition. System 2, think slow, is the deliberate, controlled, and conscious effort to evaluate the world in an analytical way by forming judgments using data and evidence, not intuition.
System 1 is our lazy, go-to process. But, we can discipline ourselves to become more aware of the duality of how our mind works and begin to ask more questions, look at more data. We could all benefit from thinking slow – or at least slower.
“Wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true, and wanting to believe is no basis for accepting a belief,” writes Kida. On the face of it, who can argue?
But the research shared here proves our brain bias toward beliefs over facts. And that, more than anything, explains our current political face-off. It doesn’t explain why so many people believe what they do, though. That’s a topic that frankly makes my brain hurt right now.
Shermer concurs, “When we want to believe in something, we’ll ignore, downplay, or even ridicule conflicting explanations.”