by Angela Noel
February 15, 2018
A guy in a ski mask and dolphin shorts ran by me as I walked my dog through our neighborhood park. While it wasn’t strange that a man would be wearing tight nylon shorts in the early 80s, a fellow wearing a full ski mask in Southern California in springtime with his penis flopping out against his thigh definitely stood out.
I hightailed it home and told my mom what had happened right away. I don’t remember the sequence of events exactly. But I do remember my dad grabbing a stocking cap, pulling it low over his eyes and heading out to the park to see if he could find the guy.
My dad acted on the instinct to protect his little girl. But in my nine-year-old brain, seeing my dad in what looked a little like the cap (without the mask) that the penis-waving fellow had worn, confusion reigned. Could the man I saw have been my father? Also, could the fact that I saw a man’s penis in the park make me pregnant?
Both of these questions plagued me, and though embarrassed, I asked my mom for the truth. “No, honey. Your dad was right here. He’d never do that. And no, you can’t get pregnant from seeing a man’s penis.”
Just like when my son thought I was a gun-toting criminal, my own younger-self struggled with what I had perceived versus what I believed to be true. I struggled to discern fact from all the noise.
Now, as an adult, I have more information, more concrete ideas of what is and is not true. That sounds like a good thing. But in fact it could be an even bigger problem. Because I think I know the answer already, maybe I won’t ask those critical questions. Worse, sometimes I don’t want to know the real answer.
The Deal with Uncertainty
“Your brain,” David Rock wrote in his article “A Hunger for Certainty” in Psychology Today, “doesn’t like uncertainty – it’s like a type of pain, something to be avoided. Certainty on the other hand feels rewarding, and we tend to steer toward it, even when it might be better for us to remain uncertain.”
And consider this from Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, “Conscious doubt . . . requires maintaining incompatible interpretations in mind at the same time, which demands mental effort.”
Finally, psychologist Daniel Gilbert author of Stumbling to Happiness and an essay titled “How Mental Systems Believe” theorized that understanding a statement must begin with an attempt to believe it. Once begun, it takes work to “unbelieve.”If our mental energy is diverted , it’s extremely difficult to “unbelieve” false sentences. Kahneman writes, describing Gilbert’s work, “The moral is significant. . . when (our attention) is otherwise engaged, we will believe almost anything.”
So, we don’t like uncertainty, it causes us pain. And we start with believing things because that’s how we begin the process of understanding something. But, when distracted we believe almost anything. In a world where we’re practically always distracted, what chance do we have to pursue truth in the face of such easily digested falsehoods?
Unfortunately, the prevalence of the same message turns lies (or misinformation) into “truth.” Known as the continued influence effect studies show, despite having our initial impressions debunked, we continue to believe misinformation. This effect is part of the same issue we’ve discussed in past posts: confirmation bias. Once we’ve been exposed to information, and it isn’t obviously untrue (like, the sky is made of cheese), we’re predisposed to prefer our initial perceptions and to continue to believe false information even when we’ve been told otherwise.
This is a serious issue.
Here’s an example. Recently, I attended the Testify Exhibit at the Hennepin Country Public Library. The exhibit featured art and memorabilia intended to bring context to issues of racial injustice. A picture of babies entitled “Alligator Bait” made me sick to my stomach. The fact that anyone could see a baby as bait for an alligator made my brain say, “No way. No one would do that. That can’t be real.”
But, what if it is?
I wasn’t there. And the news and history I’ve read all my life makes me want to believe this couldn’t possibly be true. Of course I know about slavery. I know the effects of systemic racism are real. But this! And yet, the evidence from the time tells the story.
The Next Chapter
Believing something I fundamentally do not want to believe requires an extraordinary amount of energy. But if not now, when? I had the ability at nine years old to question my perception. Though I didn’t want to believe either that my father was a flasher or that I could become pregnant from the sight of a random man’s penis, I still asked the question. In that case, the truth was better than the fiction. But, in the case of the terrible alligator bait story, the truth is MUCH worse. Will I have the courage and the energy to seek the truth even if it hurts?
My answer to that question is: Yes. But it’s hard. Yes. But I’m scared. Yes. But, I can’t do it alone. Yes. And it’s a human problem, not a political one.
Predisposed to seek the easy answer our brains fixate on the FIRST answer. Only by paying attention, by expending the energy, by allowing the possibility of “unbelief” can we find truth.
Let’s do it together.
For further reading, and a suggestion on a tool that may help anyone looking to curb the impact of cognitive bias in their lives, check out Dr. Allison Brown’s post on mindfulness.
Your turn: Have you noticed yourself rejecting truth in favor of a more comfortable belief? What’s your recommendation or plan for yourself to combat it?