There Are Reasons We Can’t Handle the Truth

Photo by ReignMan (CC BY 3.0)

Julie Beck, in The Atlantic, digs deep into news silos, alternative facts, and cognitive dissonance. When we believe things that are counterfactual, it’s not because we’re getting news from biased sources (although we are) we’re lying to ourselves (which we also are), but because the actual truth of a statement is no longer what’s important.

In one particularly potent example of party trumping fact, when shown photos of Trump’s inauguration and Barack Obama’s side by side, in which Obama clearly had a bigger crowd, some Trump supporters identified the bigger crowd as Trump’s. When researchers explicitly told subjects which photo was Trump’s and which was Obama’s, a smaller portion of Trump supporters falsely said Trump’s photo had more people in it.

While this may appear to be a remarkable feat of self-deception, Dan Kahan thinks it’s likely something else. It’s not that they really believed there were more people at Trump’s inauguration, but saying so was a way of showing support for Trump. “People knew what was being done here,” says Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University. “They knew that someone was just trying to show up Trump or trying to denigrate their identity.” The question behind the question was, “Whose team are you on?”

In these charged situations, people often don’t engage with information as information but as a marker of identity. Information becomes tribal.

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