Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why going by facts alone won’t get us closer to the truth
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All manner of falsehoods—conspiracy theories, hoaxes and fake news—are spreading like dangerous viruses through communities and are taking deep root in people’s minds. What can be done to make truth the foundation of our day-to-day interactions? The traditional solution is to create more ‘awareness campaigns’ with lots of facts. When, in 2106, Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘post-truth’ as its word of the year, it was a pointer to how perception management had become an extremely complicated process. We are now in an environment where objective facts are becoming even less influential in shaping public opinion.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger was one of the first to study the role of facts in human perception. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult followers who believed that spacemen called Guardians were coming to save them from impending floods. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came. The researchers were fascinated to note that despite all the evidence that all her predictions were wrong, believers did not give up their belief in Martin.

So, even after existing beliefs are refuted, individuals may refuse to accept any information that is in dissonance with those beliefs. Most of us, for that matter, indulge in motivated reasoning; we seek out information that supports our existing beliefs, and avoid, ignore, devalue, forget or argue against information that contradicts our beliefs. Brain studies have shown that people experience genuine pleasure—a dopamine rush—while processing information that supports their beliefs. The higher the emotional value of an existing belief, the stronger the tendency of our mental system to defend it.

It is clear that a ‘fact check’ type of solution to foster truth adherence is unlikely to work. Even if a contradictory truth stares us in the face, to avoid cognitive dissonance with our existing beliefs, many of us will find ways to believe what we believed all along anyway. Studies by Professor Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College have shown that correcting people’s misperceptions often doesn’t work; and worse, it sometimes produces a backfire effect, making people endorse their misperceptions even more strongly.

Social media adds to the woes by creating opportunities for an individual to get even more closely wedded to one’s own ideas. Many do not realize that the dynamics of social media are such that it surreptitiously increases one’s commitment to the ideas expressed there. An online post aimed at many amounts to taking a public stance on an idea, and by getting into an argument over it, that stance tends to harden. After vigorous public expressions of support for this idea, one’s commitment to it is bound to increase, which embeds it even more firmly in one’s mind. The opinions thus formed are observed to be highly perseverant.

There is a bigger factor that could make a change of opinion that much harder as a task.Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. In their book, The Knowledge Illusion, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach show that our intelligence resides not in individual brains, but in the collective mind. To function, individuals rely not only on knowledge that is stored within our skulls, but also on knowledge that is stored elsewhere, be it in our bodies, the environment or especially in other people. Human thought is incredibly impressive, but at its deepest level, it never belongs solely to any individual. Sharp boundaries rarely exist between one’s personal ‘knowledge’ and that of other members of a group one identifies with. We can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and that of others’ begins.

In charged situations, people often don’t engage with information as information, but as a marker of their tribal membership of a group, typically based on identity. The beliefs one holds are badges of membership. So if one discards a belief, one risks a loss of belonging and the support of allies, protectors, etc. From an evolutionary standpoint, social support is far more important than knowing the truth. So most people process information from a perspective of belongingness and not from the point of view of truth.

The fundamentally communal nature of knowledge explains why individual-oriented approaches to education and management frequently fail. Any idea that is different from your current world view can be threatening. So placing facts on the table is not going to help. Beliefs are closely related to membership of groups. So any new information should be introduced in a non-threatening environment, ideally a social setting.

The tribulations of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to several social institutions, like trade unions, the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, YMCA and more. Similarly, we will need to build several new social organizations and re-engineer existing ones to improve the level of social interaction. Today’s younger generation is much more into altruism, volunteer work and philanthropy. Giving time and money to help others is a sure-shot way to build bonds with people whose views are very different from ours.

Truth in this post-truth world cannot be imposed on anyone from the outside. It has to be discovered by the person. To help, we need to create environments that facilitate this discovery process. More social engagements, the sharing of meals together and so on, rather than just the cold presentation of facts, could help create a better world.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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