Mental Health Matters: Why do we believe in fake news, false facts? (opinion)
Mental Health Matters
Watch out. Be careful. Stay alert. Don’t let fake news overwhelm you, infect your life, destroy the truth.
But there’s a problem here. It seems that one person’s fake news is an others objective reality. How else to explain the dizzying, disorienting accusations launched by both the “legitimate” media and the far reaches of the internet.
The fourth estate, our news media, has come under withering attack from the Executive Branch of government. In turn, the same accused media have called the President’s remarks fact-free lies.
This is not just disagreeable disagreement. This is each side accusing the other of lying about the same information, and as a result, sullying both institutions.
Does it matter? Maybe not so much when the argument involves interpretation or opinion. But hard facts do matter. The Laws of Gravity apply even when you say they don’t. The apple falls from the tree even if you swear it doesn’t. If North Korea launches a missile, saying it didn’t won’t change its trajectory.
So why do so many people seem to be wedded to fake news or false facts? Some people are just lazy or stupid; the former don’t care about facts and the latter just don’t understand.
But most of us do understand and most of us do care. So, why do so many get it so wrong, so often? And what can we do about it?
One explanation comes from psychology: People, it turns out, do two things with great regularity that tend to undermine their ability to grasp facts.
One of them involves the beliefs we hold from an early age. If, for example, you believe Democrats want big government, facts that don’t confirm that belief tend to be disregarded and dismissed.
Preconceptions then, tend to impact the data we take in and accept. Information that conflicts with our preconceptions tends to be easily abandoned, while information that seems to confirm our beliefs is too readily accepted.
This occurs reflexively, in a flash. Little thought goes into even acknowledging this dynamic. So, to overcome this tendency, to “get at the truth,” we need to be aware of the predisposition and guard against uncritical acceptance of supportive data while rejecting conflicting information.
A second tendency is what psychologists call Cognitive Dissonance: When two cognitions or beliefs clash, a tension arises. Seeking to diminish that tension, we dismiss or otherwise rationalize the competing belief.
Let’s say that you smoke, and you know that smoking causes cancer. You could stop smoking, but that’s relatively hard to do. So, the smoker will either dismiss the science, i.e., only some studies say that smoking causes cancer, or rationalize the findings, as in only a small number of smokers develop lung cancer.
To overcome this tendency, first be aware of it, and then evaluate facts that may conflict with your belief. Easy to prescribe, harder to do, because so many of our beliefs are a part of who we are.
There’s a third problem with apprehending facts, namely our tendency to accept simple explanations in a world of wonder and complexity. What you think you see may be a mirage, a function of smoke and mirrors, rather than the real world.
Plato grasped this essential truth about people in his allegorical story about the world’s people living in a cave.
Imagine, said Plato, that we are all prisoners living in a cave staring at a blank wall. When images from behind are projected on the wall, creating shadows, we give the shadows names, like “that’s a bird,” believing they are substantive and real.
The shadows are the prisoner’s reality. Of course, the shadow is not a bird, but the prisoner, never having seen anything but the wall, never having seen an actual bird, would not know that.
Now, unchain one prisoner and lead her out of the cave into the world. Blinded by the light, the prisoner momentarily recoils in pain, but then begins to see the world and an actual bird.
Returning to the cave to alert the others to this wondrous reality, she will be killed because of her heretical beliefs, for prisoners know only shadows.
Here, Plato is pushing us to loosen the mental chains that bind us to conventional belief, to simplistic views, to shadows in the cave. He realizes that there are risks in seeking the light, that others may turn on him, but apprehending the real world, understanding the complexities of things, searching for truth, demands it.
In the end, fake news or false facts can only thrive in a world indifferent to truth. Now would be the right time to think on that.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.