Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Illusion of Truth

The Illusion of Truth Effect is an interesting phenomenon and one that is often used to manipulate us. We think we judge truth by objective, rational means. Our brains, however, have a different strategy. Because we need to judge information so frequently, our brains use several techniques to gauge the relative "truthiness" of what we hear or see.  Our brains use statistics, familiarity, and connection.

Children as young as infants give evidence of using statistics to learn. Infant brains keep track of how often they hear a sound in order to determine if that sound is important to language. We continue with this as we grow older, but we apply it to bigger chunks of language. The more often we hear something the more likely we are to determine it is true because our brains apply more importance to it. This works great while learning the phonemes of language; not so great when determining the accuracy of something posted on social media.

Once we have heard something many times, even if we haven’t paid close attention to it, we begin to see it as familiar. How many of us can sing commercial jingles from our childhood? We did not study these commercials, we simply heard them and now they are familiar. Chances are good we see the products that were represented by these jingles as positive, too.

The third technique used by our brains is connection. If what we hear is connected to something else we believe, then we are more likely to accept it as true even if at first glance it seems a bit unlikely. This is how political campaigns get us to believe horrible things about an opponent. The message going out is repeated in many forms and through many platforms and is just one step closer to evil than what you already accept because of your strong political beliefs. In some cases, even seeing hard evidence that something is NOT true does little to change a person’s mind. To our brains, what is repeated, familiar, and connected somehow must be true.

Look at the use of “fake news” from both sides of the political spectrum. Fake news begins as a twist of the truth but morphs into what we believe. Then it is easy to assume that anything that does not agree with our new belief must then be “fake news.” It is an insidious process and it is effective in bringing in the vote and keeping support.

But, if you are like me, this would not happen to you because we are rational beings who always check sources and information. Certainly it is good that we do, however, the effect of the Illusion of Truth Effect is to activate emotions that discourage us from thinking rationally. The trick is to activate fear or anger. These emotions urge a quick and impulsive response and they serve to make us even surer that the information is true.

The devil wants us to be afraid and angry. This makes us so much easier to work with. And not to say that politicians are devils (I don’t want to start my own fake news campaign) but when we are afraid or angry we are much easier for campaign messages to manipulate. 

Here is a good rule of thumb: if what you read makes you feel strong emotions be wary. 

Except for cute bunny videos. You can never go wrong with cute bunny videos.

For the word of the LORD is upright, and all His work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host. Psalm 33:4-6

As individuals, Christians are not exempt from the effects of truth illusion, but we do have an effective weapon. We know that real, solid, dependable, non-manipulating truth is found in God’s word. This is our first defense.

Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him!
For He spoke and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm.
The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations.
Psalm 33:8-11

Our second defense is that we know we can give our fears and anger to God. He has control over our world, He has complete power, and He can overcome our emotional response and replace it with a healthy fear of Him. He does not tell us to ignore the things in the world that are wrong, the things that make us angry. He simply tells us He is in charge and will direct our righteous path.

Our soul waits for the LORD; He is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in Him, because we trust in His holy name.
Let Your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in You. Psalm 33:20-22

Let God's steadfast love be what is familiar. It's a great place to be. It is safe; it is faithful; it is true.