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Why It Matters That Values Shape Our Perceptions of Facts

When preferred values become perceived facts, correction is difficult.

“We used to have disagreements about the best way up the mountain. We now have disagreements about the existence of two different mountains.”

- Michael Gerson (Chief Speechwriter to George W. Bush)

What is perfectly clear to some—the mountains of evidence for climate change, or the influence of racism, or the prevalence of false convictions—is not apparent to everyone. The peaks of national debt or valleys of immigrant crime that are plain as day to some are unseen by others. The unmovable certainty some people have that vaccines cause autism is a mystery to many who trust medical researchers. Why have we fallen into the abyss of dueling perceptions?

There are two schools of thought. One argues that we are misled by partisan politicians and ideological media. The problem is polarized leaders. The other view is that ordinary citizens project their values onto their perceptions. The problem is polarized values. The first group sees an external cause, while the second sees an internal one.

Our research suggests that the origins are internal and psychological. Fact perceptions can be manipulated by elites to some degree, but they result primarily from the mental tendencies of ordinary citizens. Hence it is not merely the easier target who is to blame (them: politicians and pundits), but also the more sensitive target (us: everyday flawed people). The problem is not simply misinformation, in the sense that people would be fine if they just heard the right thing. The problem is projection, in the sense that people will believe what they want regardless of what they hear.

One of the psychological mechanisms driving our dueling perceptions is what we call intuitive epistemology. Our values not only shape what we see as better or worse, they shape what we see at all. This is because our values frame the core questions we repeatedly ask about the world. Those who care about oppression look for oppressors; those who care about security look for threats to it. In other words, we do not end up with the same answers because we do not begin with the same questions. A specific value is not merely a hope for what we would like to exist but also a method for how we decide on its existence.

The stronger the value commitment, the stronger the effect. Those with extreme value commitments are much more certain than others that their perceptions are correct.

So the culprits are not just propagandists at Fox News or MSNBC, but also the psychological mechanisms of the minds of ordinary citizens. No external drivers are necessary if individual citizens are inclined toward value-driven perceptions. And no external correction—whether it is from journalists, or scientists, or even Robert Mueller—is likely to alter the perceptions that individuals reinforce all by themselves.

Why does it matter if the drivers are external or internal? Because the external drives could be removed or reformed. This creates a more optimistic view of our prospects. If the problem is an environment of misinformation, then we may be able to correct it through education, fact-checking, or other reforms. On the other hand, if dueling facts are largely the product of ordinary individuals projecting their entrenched values, then they likely cannot be corrected through any known mechanisms. The future of facts is division, not consensus.

Does fact-checking alter perceptions of dueling facts? As much as many journalists and scholars hope it will, the evidence is lacking. What about education? Isn’t that the path to progress in almost all cases? Not necessarily, if the skills gained through education merely allow people to project their values more accurately. It also does not help that trust in universities has been falling dramatically. This means that the skills taught at universities are accepted, but the specific facts have less purchase. Because the origins of dueling facts are internal and psychological, our facts may remain as divided as our polarized values.