“Post-Truths” Trump Facts, Affect Trumps Reason

        Post-Truth: “President Obama was born in Kenya.”

The Oxford English Dictionary named its new word of the year 2016 as “post-truth,” meaning that our strongest political feelings can overwhelm and dictate our rational thinking, irrespective of the facts.

“Affect Trumps Reason.” Recent research has shown that our “affective” states (feelings, moods) are more powerful and persuasive than are facts in getting people to change their minds and behaviors.

This nation has long been politically polarized (and paralyzed), but the vitriol expressed during the recent campaign has increased the levels of incivility and nastiness. Our national discord, however, is much more than “merely” political in nature: Our disagreements may be less along political lines than along psychological dimensions, driven by cognitive, perceptual and emotional forces.

Each political issue creates perceptions and strong psychological reactions having to do with personal feelings and thoughts. A vicious cycle ensues with the political and the psychological stimulating and feeding off each other. As a result, our democracy is acrimoniously divided between those holding diametrically opposed  sentiments on most issues.

Passionate disagreements arise on diverse political issues like taxes, immigration, religionhealth care, climate, corruption or other sensitive “triggers.” But the overriding themes are along a singular political “axis of disagreement”: The Left (liberal, progressive) versus the Right (conservative, traditional), whose “sides” are almost equivalent in representation.

We hear extremist exponents on the ultra-Right espousing hyper-patriotism and ethnocentrism, and on the ultra-Left demanding more government interventions and controls. These bitter divisions seem almost programmed into human DNA or hard-wired in our brains because they’ve been seen throughout history and are vividly apparent today. This is clearly not a uniquely American phenomenon, since similar conflicts are seen in many other countries.

Different people witnessing the same scene can draw opposite perceptions about what transpired. Even when presented with identical “facts,” people respond emotionally and psychologically with widely different thoughts and feelings. It’s as if they view the world through radically different lenses or prisms and then form rigidly passionate opinions.

The automatic reactions of liberals and conservatives are dictated by whatever perceptions increase or reduce their internal discomfort. Their comfort levels and visceral moods signal to them whether or not they sense anxieties, tension, anger, fear, threat, insecurity or sadness. Their cerebral or mind conclusions (rationale, thoughts) are based on how they personally viscerally feel (mood, emotions).

During this recent US presidential election campaign, we witnessed the phenomenon of untruths being touted as truisms and fantasies masquerading as facts. False incendiary news stories were purposefully “planted” in the rampant social media, and were specifically designed to appeal to the weaker parts of our “ids,” our inner visceral emotions. These engendered suspiciousness, fear, hate and rage, as opposed to benevolence, tolerance, and civility.

These post-truth stories spread like wildfire and actually have already influenced the courses of elections and directions of countries. The world seems to be in the throes of growing reactionary populism, which is most readily spawned during times of uncertainty and turmoil. People who feel threatened and insecure are most vulnerable to charismaticleaders and movements who give voice to angry criticism of the status quo and to vehement promises of radical change.

It behooves us to engage our fearful and angry fellow citizens with respect and empathy, with appeals to both their reason and their emotional sense of security, as well as to their own best interests. We must also explain, educate and uphold the truth and facts, and we must remain wary…

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