Last summer I made my annual trip to Moscow to teach. When I arrived, the first thing my contact asked me was, “Is Hillary dying?”
I replied, “What are you reading?” She told me she receives U.S. news on the Internet. I wanted to blame her perception on the Russian media, but I saw similar reports in the U.S.
Determining what is true is difficult. People will tell you it is simple if you just accept the facts. How do you know what facts to accept? Before you attempt to test your opinions externally with evidence, you need to look internally at the fears and assumptions that could lead you to believe unsupported opinions.
How your brain defines truth
Even if you think you are an independent thinker, most of your thoughts stem from the groups you identify with based on your upbringing, communities, religion, and even science. Shared meaning holds people together, giving you a sense of belonging, connection, and safety.
When you see evidence in the news that supports what you believe, you feel relieved and pleased.
If the news runs counter to your beliefs, you feel anxious or angry. You're more likely to call it “fake news” without looking to see if the evidence is strong or not. If someone says you are wrong, your brain sees this as a personal attack, making you even angrier. You then label their argument absurd, ignorant, or biased.
A USC study found that challenges to political beliefs, like religious beliefs, activate the same brain areas as when you see a snake or fast-approaching car.1 You feel threatened, unable to hear rational evidence against your beliefs. You lose cognitive flexibility, becoming rigidly defensive.
News articles rarely paint the entire picture; the news you get comes in fragments based on the leaning of the media you get it from. If you get your news from social media, like 62 percent of US adults, you get information from like-minded people so it isn’t balanced. This increases conviction and misinterpretation, especially when you read news counter to your beliefs.
Even when you recognize your biases, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman says you won’t stop to analyze what you read because it is too hard.2 Not only do you have too much to do...
NOTE: This doesn’t mean you should accept what you see, especially bigotry and hatred. Reflection opens you to at least understand other people's views and fears.
To counteract your brain’s tendency to construct “truth” out of comfort, convenience, and confusion, you can access your Reflective Intelligence to try to sort through your filters. This isn’t easy, but if you are courageous enough to accept a different reality, you might be able to see what else could be true.
After questioning your beliefs and biases, you can better weigh the evidence to assess if the “facts” were intended to inform or manipulate.
The more you question what you read, the sturdier the truth.
1 Kaplan, Jonas T., Gimbel, Sarah I., and Harris, Sam, “Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence”, Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 39589 (Dec. 2016)
2 Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
3 Sagan, Carl, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Ballantine Books, 1997.
Reynolds, Marcia, Outsmart Your Brain: How to Make Decisions Feel Easy, Covisioning, 2004