There are many articles about various cognitive biases and various ways to deal with them. There are even more articles about the manipulators trying to create alternative facts and how we can resist them. I would like to believe that the vast majority of human beings do not aim to manipulate, and are not very gullible, yet our communication patterns often produce disinformation. In this article, I will try to explore this thought. You can learn more about the subject here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
In a way, our partner in conversation is a magic mirror. The person we talk to reacts not only to what we have to say but also to the way we say it. People who spend a long time with each other start to synchronize the way they think and feel. If a person starts to yawn, the person talking to him will also yawn. When a person gets angry or excited, the excitement is equally contagious. When we have a true rapport with another person, we tend to copy each other’s body language and dictionary. What if the person in front of us creates a false but not impossible idea? We will tend to support the idea and develop it. Our support will inspire the others, and quite soon we could confabulate a great story. The more we trust each other, the more likely we will be to support each other’s fantasies and confabulate something that is not true.
Can we use our critical skills to deal with confabulation? The pieces of evidence are inconclusive. Scientists check each other’s work all the time, yet there are things we take for granted, simply because believing is easier than actually testing. No sane scientist will doubt the empirical evidence of others, as long as they do not contradict the common paradigm. More so if the paradigm is a basic one. People used to believe that the earth rotates around the sun for millennia, even though some scientists speculated otherwise even in ancient Greece. The colors we believe to be able to name and tell apart are very different from what they used to be, and this ability is as much a function of our language as it is of our perception. A paradigm shift often happens when a new generation finds a different approach to the subject, and confabulate more acceptable paradigm.
For the sake of simplicity
Many theories are believed to be true because they explain certain phenomena in a simple way. In the middle ages, it was simpler to accept God because science was not sufficiently developed. In the 20th century, it was simpler to believe in science since religion had more contradiction than the scientific method. Today, it is probably simpler to simulate something than to prove a theory one way or another. Once something is simulated and we see it, we eventually start to believe in it, even though there may be very little facts to support the simulation.
The power of persuation
Powerful rhetorics may change our mind through our feelings. A deep need to belong, fear of something different, search for something to inspire us, are some of the factors that offer a strong leverage for rhetorical devices. A good politician, businessman or advocate simply cannot afford to ignore the rhetorical devices. If something corresponds to our common sense and generates a strong emotional response we will tend to believe it and act accordingly. If someone proves using strong evidence that we have been wrongly persuaded, some of our persuasion will still be there. We could believe as long as we like that all people are equal, yet various psychological tests will discover agism, sexism or racial prejudice. Even when we understand our own bias, we still secretly hope that we were right.
The things our friends believe in will probably be the things we believe in. This is a vicious circle. We will instinctively look for friends with similar social status, political views, and scientific ideas. Then our friends will feed us with the news and ideas as they perceive them. With time, we will grow closer to other people with similar ideas and experience some distrust to very different people with very different ideas. For example, are guns good or bad for the security? In the US the guns generate a lot of suicides and half that much killing. In other countries, guns do not generate death on such a scale. We can talk about Israel and Switzerland where everyone has access to guns, or about England where guns have been taken from most citizens. In both cases, we will see less gun violence than in the US, and have a great argument to support our position. And most of our friends will probably agree with our argumentation.
Think like philosophers
Why do we still need philosophers? Some would say that philosophers question everything, including the things that cannot be scientifically proven. Businessmen will probably look for opportunities. Scientists will try to find facts or build an undeniable logical argumentation. Politicians and media will try to convince us one way or another. Only philosophers have no better incentive than questioning everything. While the true philosophical arguments are very complex and dry, under the effect of alcohol or in crisis people generate ideas instead of asking questions. There are very few opportunities for us simply to ask questions. If we ask too many questions, somebody will want to do the next logical step and reply “What do you propose?”. A true philosopher will be content with simply formulating the right question. True philosophers are extremely rare.
Suppose we could overcome all the difficulties, ask the right question and maybe even suggest certain ways to find the truth. Most of our friends will be ecstatic. They will support us. They will agree with everything we say. “Yes, exactly!” Then they will reformulate what they understood in a way that is very natural for them, but contradictory to what we are trying to say. If for some strange reason, we will try to contradict they will get confused and still not understand what we want to say. The mirror can distort, and if we demand too much from the communication we will notice the distortion and disengagement.
Recalibrate the reality
Some sophisticated people try to recalibrate their reality and see the true facts. They visit the forums of groups with very different viewpoints and try to collect the original facts instead of a summary of interpretations like most of us. I would love to think they are successful. They can definitely present a new argument, a fresh way of thinking, maybe a new paradigm. Probably they are not very objective, no matter how much they try to be. Even if they are objective, the way we understand them is usually distorted by our view of reality. If they are sufficiently eloquent we will echo “Yes, exactly”. When it is socially or financially beneficial, we will probably join a revolution. Will we be able to think independently? Possibly on very few subjects in which we are experts, or when we are truly willing to invest in learning more. Otherwise, we will still be distorted mirrors of what we read and hear.