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Cognition

The Truth About Facts

A significant portion of this country supports a candidate for President that I do not. By now you’ve already formed an idea of whom I’m talking about, though I’ve given no indication about my preference (unless you follow me on Twitter) and the statement is true for anyone who writes it.

We make assumptions like this hundreds of times a day without any conscious effort. I use it simply to illustrate the lack of control we have over assumption-driven thought. Left unattended, it can impair our ability to empathize with another’s point of view. We’re seeing this play out right now in stereo between liberals and a disaffected working class. In fact, the harder we try to convert the other guy, the worse it seems to get.

In the late ’80s, the ever-prescient physicist-philosopher David Bohm wrote that “in the present context efforts to prevent [communication breakdown] from happening generally tend to accelerate the breakdown”; adding, “Is it not possible that our crude and insensitive manner of thinking about communication … is a major factor behind our inability to see what … would end the present difficulties?” In a separate but related essay, Bohm underscores that cleaning up cultural “pollution” downstream won’t fix anything. Pollution has to be addressed at the source: our collective inability to suspend our impulses.

Researchers at Dartmouth found in 2006 that presenting people with factual contradictions can actually strengthen their most firmly-held beliefs. In the study, participants were asked to read news blurbs with and without their attendant corrections. Those who distrusted the source on ideological grounds believed the uncorrected version more, which indicated that their objection was not necessarily to the information, but their impression of the source. Dubbed the “backfire effect,” the finding squares with what we’re seeing in the 2016 election cycle, particularly among those furthest left and right.

But there’s a larger issue at play here as it relates to how assumptions and associations, which we use instinctively to fragment the world and its people into categories and concepts, can actually undermine our ability to communicate. Such an argument favors subjectivism over objectivism: an individual’s reality can’t be restructured by reason alone. So, running amok across Facebook with a chart from Politifact disproving claims about a candidate’s behavior, for example—you know, hypothetically speaking, if that’s maybe something you do (too)—won’t convert nonbelievers. “When one human being tells another human what is ‘real,’” said biologist Humberto Maturana, “what they are actually doing is making a demand for obedience. They are asserting that they have a privileged view of reality.” Maturana’s point here (by way of Bohm) supports the idea that the “backfire effect” is a biological imperative, a part of our survival instinct that, in essence, protects our reality and our personhood.

Meaning, for a designer, the most convincing and reasoned defense of, say, purple, might endear you to colleagues, but it’s not going to win over the stubborn stakeholder whose identity is tied up with being a purple-hater. In accordance with “the backfire effect” and Muratana’s “privileged view” of reality, that stakeholder is all the more likely to start rejecting what the designer has to say out of hand.

In a conversation with Debbie Millman at the New York Public Library a few months ago, Pentagram partner Michael Beirut said that in situations where a client reacts to something with disgust, he resists the natural inclination to defend the work, instead “exhausting them with questions.” Not only Why?, but, What does it remind you of? Did you dislike that thing? And so on and so on, question after question, until they’ve been turned out like a pair of pockets and all their associations and assumptions are out on the table. Only once you share a common understanding is a new and better solution possible.

“We are not aiming for the kind of group that condemns and judges,” proclaimed Bohm. When it comes to matters of taste, politics, religion—matters of people—suspending judgement is a profoundly difficult thing to do, and much easier blogged than done. I know that I’m not equipped with the patience and presence of mind to always recognize in the moment my own assumptions acting out. The best I can do is remind myself to listen. Maybe if I listen long enough, I can do a little something about all that pollution upstream.

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