October 16, 2018

Letting animals vote

You look terrific.  Have you lost weight?  Are you working out?  You’ve got this glow about you.  I bet you’re in love.  Wait—you were promoted.  That’s it, isn’t it?  They finally recognized how talented you are.  By the way, did you know that the average global surface temperature has gone up one degree over the last three decades?  It’s true.  Here, have a look at this chart.

That approach, or something like it, is how you might get climate change deniers to change their minds, according to a ” target=”_hplink”>previous study dropped this downer bomb: When people are misinformed, giving them just facts to correct the errors only makes them cling to them more tenaciously.  Apparently there’s something in our brains that resists contradiction.  It hurts our heads to change our minds.

The earlier, ” target=”_hplink”>good news for journalists whose stories are illustrated with charts.  A picture – a graph – actually does turn out to be worth a thousand words.

But I’m ambivalent about the news about affirmation.

Sure, if boosting someone’s self-esteem is the route to convincing them that tax rates are at a historic low, and that the Bush tax cuts are the cause of most of the looming deficit, then I’d be delighted to laugh at their jokes, praise their buns, admire their swing – whatever it takes. 

But if pumping up someone’s sense of self-worth can get them to accept an uncomfortable fact, maybe the opposite is also true: Running someone down makes them more resistant to reality.  Isn’t that what demagogues do when they tell people they’re victims?  Elites think you’re inferior; secular humanists think you’re deluded; tree huggers think you’re gullible; illegals think you’re chumps; China thinks you’re toast.  There’s nothing like inducing a siege mentality to make people impervious to evidence that contradicts them. 

The link between feeling good and facing facts is a reminder that reason doesn’t rule us.  It’s uncomfortable to admit it, but we’re animals.  We eat too much ” target=”_hplink”>pretty people and ” target=”_hplink”>gossip get high ratings not because we’re morally weak, but because paying attention to them turned out to be evolutionarily adaptive. 

For every Jefferson who praises the power of ” target=”_hplink”>far from angels we are, and how dangerous it is to put too much power in too few hands, no matter how cultivated the owners of those hands are.  We love to talk about campaigns being great national conversations, and about elections being wonderful opportunities to discuss the issues, but when we pick leaders, it‘s our gut that does the choosing.  We Homo sapiens respond more to stories than to statistics, more to feelings than to facts, more to images than to issues, more to drums than to debates, more to intuition than to information.  This is not a failing of our character.  It is a characteristic of our species.  And in America, we bipeds get to vote. 

Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.