Saturday, July 31, 2010

What Compels Us to Believe Lies?

The news is certainly compelling! Here is a lady serving in the a government administration. Lady gives speech. Speech is about discriminating against a white client who has a haughty attitude. Video shows speech and goes viral, with the help of certain "news" agency.

Other news agencies pick up on it. Prominent organizations call for lady to be fired, and she is.

Except that the story which got Shirley Sherrod fired was a lie -- a vicious, terrible distortion of the truth -- and no one bothered to get the lady's explanation. By twisting perceptions of time, and cutting the video at a particular place, Shirley was presented as a black racist in the Obama administration, and fired.

And ohhh, how many people believed she was guilty as charged!

What is it that compels us to believe lies? We do, you know. We hear them and believe them. We tell them, and wind up believing them even though we know they are lies. Somehow lies can compel belief far stronger than truth can, and we fall prey to them. We need to know why so we can control this tendency instead of the tendency controlling us.

We all prejudge and draw conclusions before all the facts are in. How we judge depends on what perspectives we have going into the situation. If you are a Democrat and believe that people need help, then you will believe Republicans are hardhearted for voting against unemployment benefits. If you are a Republican and believe that people are milking the system, you will believe that Democrats are too softhearted and are simply gullible. The judgment depends upon your value set.

Mind you, the typical Republican won't go out to meet the unemployed and understand their desperate situation. Neither will the typical Democrat go examine the cases of fraudulent claims. They have enough information to suit them, and more information would upset their sense of certitude.

"I know what I believe. Don't confuse me with facts."

Situations are complex. To save time and energy, we judge first, then look at evidence later. This is likely an evolutionary adaptation to being hunted. Better to flee first than think too much and get munched! But in a civilized society, the "fight or flight" reaction is not very efficient. And once you have reacted, you have the tendency to support your reaction rather than support acting another way. We all want to be "right." So we select the evidence that supports our position and reject the evidence that does not.

In cases where partial memory is relied on, the brain fills in the gaps in its own way -- according to the bias of the owner. This is why some women who were raped have misidentified their attacker, and helped send an innocent person to prison. They genuinely believe they made the correct identification, the police and prosecutors support them, and the ones they identify are convicted. But all too often, it is based on a lie. Scores of convicted rapists have been exonerated once the DNA evidence has been examined.

Unscrupulous people take advantage of our tendency to believe lies, so they construct scenarios that certain people will find irresistibly believable. Advertisers, political spin doctors, con artists, certain religious leaders -- want to form your perception of reality for you. Selecting which parts of the truth will be shown can create a lie as well. People may know they are being victimized, but not know how to stop it.

For Shirley Sherrod, the lie about her nearly destroyed her life. It was only when someone stopped and actually listened to her that the lie was broken. So here are some tips on how to keep from being fooled by lies and liars.

First, doubt your own certitude. That is, you aren't always right. You aren't God. Once you admit that you don't know all the facts and can be wrong, there is a way to change the outcome.

Second, be willing to listen to the other side -- even if they are not willing to listen in return. Truth is inevitably balanced. Truth is not a fringe holding. Perhaps the information the person conveys is completely unreliable -- you have still been willing to listen to it.

Third, be suspicious, even of good news or news you are inclined to jump at believing. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." Remember that fish get hooked by tempting bait, and someone may know what tempts you. Better to forestall judgment and investigate further than jumping on a bandwagon or biting the hook.

We are all very visual. If we see it for ourselves, we tend to believe it. It used to be that video or picture evidence was reliable. But in today's age of Photoshop and video editing, pictures can be altered and videos can be manipulated. Picture and video may be telling lies, too. So be suspicious!

Fourth, recognize the human condition. We are programmed (DNA) and conditioned (socially) both to lie and to believe lies. It is rare for someone to have a clear grasp of the truth, unencumbered by some falsehoods on the matter. Your sources can lie or can be deceived. Yes, your enemies lie. But so do your friends (maybe less often, but they ARE human!), and most importantly, so do you and me. We can't help it. We are what we are.

Fifth, wanting to believe something doesn't mean we should believe it. The fact that you want to believe something indicates that your prejudices are oriented in that way. The act of prejudging a situation is not wrong by itself. We are wired to do that. However, we should remember that prejudging can lead us to wrong conclusions. So even if we want to believe a particular way, we should be willing to investigate alternatives.

Sixth, remember we can do better. We may be what we are, but we also have a choice to make ourselves better. By remembering our own tendencies, we can act to balance them and gain more truth with less error.

Let me know what you think. Where do you see yourself as most vulnerable and why? Once we do this kind of self-reflection, we can begin to make progress.

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