Friday, April 27, 2018
Perspective

Column: A superhero power for our time is how to handle the truth

The nuances of how people react when faced with the truth have come into focus in today's increasingly polarized political climate.

A decade ago, comedian Stephen Colbert introduced viewers to the idea of "truthiness," a quality belonging to claims that were based on gut feelings instead of facts. Last year, the Oxford Dictionaries named the word "post-truth" the word of the year. It's a description of a general characteristic of our time — objective facts becoming less influential than emotions or personal beliefs.

Norbert Schwarz, co-director of the University of Southern California's Mind and Society Center, and his colleagues say the process goes like this: When people consider whether something is true, they engage in either analytic or intuitive evaluations. Analytic evaluations are cognitively taxing and may involve searching for information like knowledge drawn from books or experts. Intuitive evaluations require less effort and are largely based on gut feelings — familiarity, ease of understanding.

We all use both methods depending on what we are thinking about, like where to go for a haircut or which person we should choose to fix our refrigerator. You may know something about how to cut hair or fix appliances, but you rely on some shortcuts. Maybe you saw people coming out of a few salons and decided to go with the one whose results you liked best after days of observation. But more likely you relied on the recommendation of a friend or the convenience of the shop whose very professional sign you pass every day on your way home. Whether you end up in the analytic or intuitive camp has as much to do with how familiar a claim feels to you and how easily the story flows for you as it does how much objective information you have about a topic, even a political one.

Start with what psychologists call social consensus. This is the idea that if lots of people believe something it is likely to be true. People, it turns out, have been shown to be more confident in their beliefs if others share them. Social consensus turns on the question, "Do other people believe the claim?"

Analytic evaluations of this criterion might involve the use of poll results or supporting statistics. When this kind of evidence is hard to acquire, the gut can substitute a look-alike piece of evidence — familiarity. In the absence of data about whether people believe something, sometimes people simply ask themselves, "Have I heard this before?" The logic is simple. If many people believe something, you've probably heard it repeated a few times. And if you've heard it a few times, that makes it familiar. Therefore, if it's familiar, you conclude others believe it.

This means that candidates, groups or anyone looking to influence opinions can increase the likelihood that people believe their claims by making them seem familiar. When President Donald Trump starts a statement with the phrase, "Lots of people are saying," he is generating a sense of social consensus. When he repeats something many times in the same speech, as he did in his first interview as president with David Muir of ABC, he is making his claim seem more familiar to listeners and increasing its believability.

Look at the ways Trump creates social consensus in just one exchange in the interview: To a question from Muir, he said, "You know what's important, millions of people agree with me."

"All of the people," he followed up, "they're saying: 'We agree with Mr. Trump. We agree.' " He is making the things he says seem more familiar to listeners who are processing intuitively.

You might think people would discount information repeated by the same speaker in a short sequence, but you'd be wrong. In one experiment, researchers showed participants text that was repeated on a page, clearly the result of an error at the print shop. Even in this circumstance, repeating the information increased its credibility. It matters more that ideas are repeated than how they are repeated.

Another criterion is compatibility — the impression that a claim fits with what you already believe or feel. The more the information fits, the more likely you are to accept it as true.

There is an analytic and intuitive way to assess compatibility, too. To nudge someone from the intuitive to analytic evaluation on this yardstick, all you have to do is make the task feel less easy and familiar.

Psychologists in one study asked people how many animals of each kind Moses took on the Ark. Most people replied "two" despite the fact that it was Noah, not Moses, who populated the Ark. When the question flowed less smoothly — because it was written in a hard-to-read typeface — people were much more likely to notice the mistake in the question. Engaging the brain by slowing it down can help people appreciate incompatibility and reject claims they might otherwise accept as true.

Evaluating claims intuitively rather than analytically may interact with the way many people cultivate information these days — via social media — in a worrisome way. Familiarity of messages and ideas increases with reposting, retweeting or sharing. And since most people are friends with people who are like them — even politically — the increasingly familiar messages are one-sided. A false sense of social consensus develops. Coherence and compatibility make the stories flow more smoothly, and as a result, new information is intuitively accepted as true because it feels right.

With battles between the head and the gut rampant, what's the future of truth? The evidence from social psychology suggests all is not lost. Simply telling people they are wrong is unlikely to change many minds, but making the flow of false claims a bit more bumpy can push people into analytic evaluations rather than intuitive ones. Getting out of the post-truth era may require listening to people on the other side. The goal is to make what feels true compatible with what is true.

Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science at UCLA, is a co-author of "The Gamble," about the 2012 presidential campaign.

© 2017 New York Times

Comments
PolitiFact: Understanding felon voting rights restoration

PolitiFact: Understanding felon voting rights restoration

When felons leave prison, should they regain the right to vote?Thatís a question that many states have grappled with in recent decades. Florida and New York made recent headlines for policies on restoration of voting rights, and those policies have b...
Published: 04/25/18
Updated: 04/26/18

Oh, Florida! For our Puerto Rican evacuees, a primer on Florida politics

Casablanca again, and as always I got sucked in by the romantic triangle of Rick, Ilsa and Captain Renault. (Oh, and Victor. Hmm, I guess itís more of a love rhombus.)Anyway, thereís a scene in there that never fails to make me think of Florida. Two ...
Published: 04/24/18
Updated: 04/26/18
Perspective: The Heartland to Headwaters Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition finds frustration and fear seeking a safe path for wildlife across Interstate 4

Perspective: The Heartland to Headwaters Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition finds frustration and fear seeking a safe path for wildlife across Interstate 4

The original Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition in 2012 was inspired by how the Florida black bear roamed ó and the space it needed to do so successfully. In 2010, expedition team member Joe Guthrie conducted research through the University of Kent...
Published: 04/22/18
Book review: James Comey wants to explain himself

Book review: James Comey wants to explain himself

In 2016, as the director of the FBI, James Comey publicly dissected Hillary Clintonís email server controversy. Later, we learned that Comey was keeping to himself the beginnings of an investigation into Russiaís active interference in the U.S. elect...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18
Column: Why the Starbucks racial bias training is more than just good PR

Column: Why the Starbucks racial bias training is more than just good PR

Starbucks isnít really in the coffee business. Weíve known that for over a decade. McDonaldís coffee is better and cheaper than Starbucks, but that hasnít done any harm to the coffee shopís bottom line. Thatís because what people are paying for when ...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18

"ISNíT EVEN A 1,"is how Michael Cohen, President Donald Trumpís personal lawyer and close friend, would rate on a scale of 1 to 100, where 100 is fully protecting the president. Thatís how one of Trumpís longtime legal advisers, Jay Goldberg, says he...
Published: 04/16/18
Updated: 04/20/18
Perspective: The Heartland to Headwaters Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition will hope to find a path across Interstate 4 for wildlife

Perspective: The Heartland to Headwaters Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition will hope to find a path across Interstate 4 for wildlife

n two expeditions, three friends and trailblazing conservationists have already trekked more than 2,000 miles through wildlands crisscrossing the state to prove the viability of a Florida Wildlife Corridor, a network of the best remaining connected w...
Published: 04/13/18
Updated: 04/14/18
A Little Perspective: Interesting news and notes from around the world

A Little Perspective: Interesting news and notes from around the world

THE QUIZ: Four cards are laid in front of you, each of which has a letter on one side and a number on the other. The sides that you see read E, 2, 5 and F. Your task is to turn over only those cards that could decisively prove the truth or falsity of...
Published: 04/12/18
Updated: 04/20/18
PolitiFact: A closer look at attorney-client privilege after raid of Donald Trumpís lawyer

PolitiFact: A closer look at attorney-client privilege after raid of Donald Trumpís lawyer

President Donald Trump lashed out after the FBI seized business records, emails and tax documents belonging to his personal attorney Michael Cohen.Law enforcement executed warrants on Cohenís Manhattan office, home and hotel room as part of an invest...
Published: 04/11/18
Updated: 04/13/18
Smith: Adam Putnam knows Florida, but that might not be enough today to become governor

Smith: Adam Putnam knows Florida, but that might not be enough today to become governor

Here is a little secret among reporters who regularly interact with Gov. Rick Scott:Reporters know it rarely matters if they happen to miss one of the governorís periodic and brief question and answer sessions. He almost never says anything.How shou...
Published: 04/11/18
Updated: 04/13/18