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Fact Arrogance Breeds Alternative Facts

Credibility requires facts plus trust.

Key points

  • Motivated reasoning is the tendency to accept information that agrees with our biased worldview and reject information that contradicts it.
  • It’s useful to think of biases as coping mechanisms, helping us avoid the pain of fear and shame.
  • Acceptance of facts also depends on our emotional reactions to those relating or reporting them.

Motivated reasoning is the tendency to accept information that agrees with our biased worldviews and reject information that contradicts them. A lot of good research underlies the principle (Google Milt Lodge and Chuck Taber). A sister concept is motivated skepticism, where we apply more skepticism to facts that contradict our biases than to those that conform to them. Confirmation bias differs slightly in that it implies a more proactive search for cherry-picked evidence to support biases while ignoring facts that contradict them.

The bottom line: On autopilot, biased judgment is unavoidable, as discussed in "The Secret to Better Judgment." To reduce biases, we must deliberate on judgments, considering contradictory evidence and alternative explanations.

But bias is not the whole story of why we reject certain evidence-based interpretations of facts in favor of interpretations with little or no supporting evidence. The choice to accept or reject also depends on our emotional reactions to those relating or reporting the facts.

For example, during the pandemic, I heard an NPR piece featuring an esteemed epidemiologist who made an impassioned plea for vaccinations. Every fact he cited had empirical support, and I agreed with everything he said. But he came off as arrogant and disrespectful of those who had doubts. He tried to motivate them by shaming them. When the interviewer asked if he thought he persuaded anyone who disagreed with him, he contemptuously dismissed a large segment of the population as ignorant and delusional. Not only did his emotional demeanor not persuade anyone, but I also suspect he made some of those who were unsure about vaccinations decide against them.

To accept facts as truth, we need to trust the platform and individuals citing the facts. The rise of alternative facts and fake news directly parallels the decline of trust in the press. In my long lifetime, I've seen the fourth estate sink from the most trusted of public institutions to the depths of distrust normally reserved for politicians. Trust is more than sharing beliefs and biases. (Consider the people in your place of worship or political group with whom you agree but don’t quite trust.) Trust rises from perceptions of respect, goodwill, lack of hidden agenda, and, most important, a sense that your feelings—not necessarily beliefs—are validated.

Imagine how the NPR interview would have gone if the arrogant scientist had respected the fears of those who had doubts about vaccinations and showed genuine concern for their well-being.

Protection Against Fear and Shame

It’s useful to think of biases as coping mechanisms, helping us avoid the pain of fear and shame. The autopilot brain tends to ignore, deny, or minimize information that threatens to evoke fear or shame. To change our own biases, not to mention those of other people, we must deliberately reduce fear and shame about facts.

We’re familiar with the attitudes of others that increase fear, shame, and protective anger: arrogance, self-righteousness, disrespect, manipulation. We’re less familiar with attitudes that decrease fear and shame: reassurance, encouragement.

Political messages used to be reassuring and encouraging. Think of FDR’s fireside chats during the Great Depression and in the darkest days of World War II.

Personal Biases

If we don’t trust our physicians, we’re unlikely to accept their diagnoses. They either ordered the wrong tests or misinterpreted the results. This is especially true when the diagnoses evoke fear of death or permanent impairment or if they stimulate shame for having neglected one’s health or having behaved in unhealthy ways. Some people seek a second opinion. A few renounce the medical profession and trust in God or fate. I’d like to think that most people question their autopilot judgments and research the diagnoses and scientific validity of the test results.

Without biases, there would be no such thing as ego defense. We tend to be skeptical of facts about our mistakes when acceptance would evoke shame or fear of losing something. Some people deny them completely; most minimize their effects. This tendency ruptures relationships, making ego defense more important than compassion for loved ones. Failure of compassion usually hurts more than the original mistake. Disputes about the genuineness of apology are not about admitting mistakes; they're about showing you care that I'm hurt.

To overcome biases about mistakes, accept that we all make them and we all have biases about them. Denying or minimizing facts creates more fear and shame. We reduce fear and shame through compensatory behavior, motivated by compassion for the effects of the mistakes on others.

Public Issue Biases

The restraint to accepting empirically supported facts about public issues such as climate change is obviously fear and shame, but also the sense of powerlessness they confer on individuals. It seems that the only alternative to denying and minimizing facts is despair or impotent protest.

To overcome biases, messages about public issues must be empowering—this is what you can do to make things better—for example, take part in political activism or advocacy, reduce your carbon footprint, recycle, eat less meat, pick up your purchases all at once rather than having them delivered individually to your door.

To gain acceptance, messages about facts must not evoke fear or shame or be presented in an arrogant or devaluing manner. They must be reassuring that the problem is solvable and encouraging that we can do something to ameliorate it.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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