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Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.
Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.

Why We Believe What We’re Told

Science is a willingness to accept facts even if they are opposed to wishes.*

We live in an interesting time: the ubiquity of social media allows for rapid access to information, constantly feeding our perceptions and feelings.

Sometimes, though, social media lies. Discriminating between reliable versus unreliable sources of information is a difficult task that requires vigilance and effort. Unfortunately, many people choose unreliable sources, which leads to erroneous beliefs in “alternative facts.”

The question for social scientists and psychologists is what is the psychological process that underlies our vulnerability to information that is only marginally accurate or outright false?

Although there are no simple answers, the understanding of how people seek and process information allows the following assumptions:

We know that information is transmitted by observation and experience. As children, we learn from our parents and peers. These early experiences, along with our genetic predispositions, lead to preferences in values: be it social justice, the meaning of success, etc.

The narratives that we are exposed to shape our interpretation of reality and our beliefs. These core, fundamental beliefs that evolve as we mature are likely to be consistent with the values and the ideology—religious, political, cultural—of our immediate environment, whether that’s Small Town USA, New York City, or any place in between.

Once the belief has been established, it is maintained by a variety of cognitive biases or “thinking shortcuts.” The main purpose of the shortcuts is to save energy and maintain a perception of certainty. We are motivated by a pervasive need to maintain an emotional and physical equilibrium.

On the media side, those who are invested in promoting a specific ideology are skilled in providing ample opportunities, and thus persuasion, to their audience:

First, they use narratives and stories that include just enough facts to be plausible (an old rule of thumb in communist propaganda suggested that in any given narrative, five percent of truth is the necessary threshold for the information to be presented as factual and accurate).

Second, they use the language (particular keywords in the title, for example) that evoke a desired emotional state (frequently a negative emotion of anger, frustration or resentment). Emotional states are strongly associated with the kind of thoughts that we have and dictate our behavioral choices.

Last, we do their work for them. The rest of the persuasion is delegated to the individual and their thinking habits. Our attention will be focused on information that is consistent with our established points of view. This process leads to a further reinforcement and narrowing of our future choices.

According to this perspective, it is easier for most of us to mentally “default” to those facts and opinions that decrease our anxieties and support our view of the world.

To be fair, how we process information and the media’s appetite for attention are not new. What appears to be new is the 24-hour news cycle with its need to fill the time with content, the availability and popularity of social media, the immediacy of response (that helps to shape the intended message), and a strong motivation to promote often extreme and categorical points of view.

In his 2017 commencement speech at Colorado College, the historian Hampton Sides brought the point home: “We’ve seen the rise of Fake News—not just false stories, but also whole websites and news outlets expressly designed to spread them. The massive chemical disaster that ISIS orchestrated recently in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana . . . didn’t happen. Remember that terrible terrorist attack in Sweden? Remember that horrible massacre in Bowling Green?”

In these times, then, it is imperative that we remain vigilant to so-called facts that may in reality be alternative facts designed not to educate and inform, but to alarm and sway.

*BF Skinner

About the Author
Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.

Emanuel Maidenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA with a focus on coping with fear and uncertainty.

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