Life in the Box: …the Opposite of Truth?
Life in the Box: How Do People Come to Believe the Opposite of Truth?
August 11, 2022
One question has been bothering me a lot in recent years: how can so many people believe the opposite of truth? How could they embrace anti-liberal hate bait to the point that they risk their lives, and the lives of everyone around them? Two major examples are: their behavior around Covid, and their January 6th attack on the Capitol. How can they ignore all the evidence? How can they believe baseless innuendo?
I have been reading a lot, talking with folks, and pondering this for a few years. There’s a lot of speculation about how so many Americans have been swayed. Is it brainwashing? Hypnosis?
As an avid observer, I want to assemble the various theories and make some of my own speculations. Here are some of my basic assumptions:
- Humans learn by stimulation. From day one, we’re pummeled by sights, sounds, smells and emotions. In order to not be constantly overwhelmed, over the years we’ve learned to ignore some signals (the sounds of traffic far away, the normal smells, our body’s heart beat and normal breathing.)
- When the stimulation is unusual or emotional, we remember it. We have a physical reaction. Our brain and/or body makes notes.
- I’ve seen reports like this one in Scientific American that say there are measurable brain differences between liberals and conservatives: “On the whole, the research shows, conservatives desire security, predictability and authority more than liberals do, and liberals are more comfortable with novelty, nuance and complexity.”
- We all build on what we have already learned and experienced, and our brain has a sort of “sifting system” for what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
- Our brain likes to simplify. Once we have a working theory, our brain looks for affirmations of that belief, and tends to downplay any evidence to the contrary.
- Hypnosis is persuasion. People can be persuaded to act in certain ways (flap your arms like a chicken, for instance, in a hypnotism entertainment forum.) They will only follow a hypnotist’s “commands” if they are open to them. While under hypnosis, people won’t kill someone if they don’t believe it’s right.
- Since we build on a lifetime of beliefs, it’s hard to change us from our fundamentals. Intellectual discussion isn’t going to have much effect.
So, I’ve been wondering what the building blocks of an election-denier might be. If we realize that the distrust of the government (and mainstream media and science) wasn’t born in a day, what could possibly lead to a radical distrust that is enough to create a violent reaction?
Here’s a hypothetical chain of thought. Think of this as “If I believe in #1, I might easily adopt #2, and so on, whether the added thought has a substantial “evidence” base or not. It’s more about feelings.
1. I work hard for a living.
2. My life would be easier if I didn’t pay as much in taxes.
3. I pay too much in taxes.
4. I heard that some people get their food and rent paid by my taxes.
5. I heard they don’t work hard. They are lazy.
6. They don’t deserve to live off my money.
7. I heard they all drive Cadillacs.
8. I can’t afford a Cadillac. I’m getting screwed.
9. Democrats want to give those cheaters more of my money.
10. Republicans are mad about the same things I’m mad about.
11. I will vote for Republicans.
12. Republicans will give me tax breaks.
13. Democrats will make my taxes go up.
14. My friends agree with me about Republicans and Democrats.
15. I especially like Republicans that speak authoritatively and tell Democrats to “stick it.”
16. I have no use for Democrats and the liberals that think everyone is equal.
17. Obviously, some people are better than others.
18. Lazy people shouldn’t be treated as my equal. I work hard.
19. My beliefs are based in fact.
20. My spiritual leaders confirm my beliefs.
21. My spiritual leaders agree that some people are just plain old sinners.
22. People who are sinners should be ashamed of themselves.
23. People who have pride in their sins are repugnant.
24. It makes me mad to see laws that pretend that repugnant people should be treated with respect. I don’t respect them and you can’t make me.
25. I don’t respect lawmakers who want to force me to be nice, and give my money to those oddballs.
26. It’s a relief to hear Republicans finally say this out loud.
27. It’s a relief to have authorities tell those liberals to sit down and shut up.
28. My community always votes Republican.
29. There are more Republicans in my area than Democrats.
30. How can Democrats win elections when there are actually way more Republicans here?
31. They must have cheated.
32. The radio and television and online sources that agree with me have been telling me that Democrats are cheating. For years, they’ve told me anecdotes about dead people voting and people stuffing ballot boxes.
33. I’ve gone to Republican rallies, and they are great! They make me smile, laugh, cheer and roar with anger.
34. I can’t stand it when Democrats think they are in charge. They are trying to change things in a bad way.
35. There’s no way Democrats could have more votes than Republicans.
36. There are a million ways Democrats are cheating us. They are so corrupt. They never get put in jail when they cheat.
37. Republicans may cheat, too, but most of the time it’s just untrue. They are being unfairly punished, just because they are Republicans.
38. Yes, Trump tells lies, but every politician does. I like his attitude.
39.Yes, there are law suits against Trump, but it’s just jealousy. Democrats get law suits against them, too.
40. Every time I see Trump, I get thrilled that finally, an authoritarian I can respect is in charge.
41. There’s no way any of those anti-Trumpers can beat Trump.
42. Trump didn’t lose. He’s told us so, and we believe him.
43. This has been building for years. This is the last straw.
44. We’re not going to stand for Democrats cheating us anymore.
45. American democracy is built on fair and free elections and this one was obviously not either.
46. I will fight for my country.
What do you think? Does this seem like a possible chain of thought?
I think that people don’t go from believing elections are fair to believing elections are rigged in just one day, or a year, but in a lifetime.
Is the right-wing media to blame for brain-washing? How about social media platforms that select “messages similar to yours?” Well, every malicious and incorrect message that’s sent has a part in changing “reality.” But fundamentally, each message is being built upon a previous belief system. The brain magnetizes messages that rest easily upon the messages already collected and “approved.”
So, yes, every time a trusted entity repeats a lie or a malicious innuendo, those who lean that way are more determined that they are right. Their brain says, “That fits the patterns I already have.” And, if a fact doesn’t fit a strong pattern, it’s rejected.
I could make a similar step-by-step thought pattern list for liberals. Liberals’ thought patterns can be fooled, too. But our emotions will lead us in very different chains of thoughts than those shown above.
One quote stands out to me from the Scientific American article:
“Partisanship does not just affect our vote; it influences our memory, reasoning and even our perception of truth.”
Luckily for us, there is a lot of leeway in our brains. A liberal might like gun “freedom” and a conservative might support gay equality because of who they know and their life experiences. There is common ground in that we all wish to believe we are good people, and that we live in a basically good country.
As a liberal, I challenge myself to love–or at least, accept—people the way they are. A conservative friend of mine once told me that she believes that my being gay is a sin, but she still loves me. I found that terribly condescending at the time, but now I understand a bit more. She was offering me an olive branch.
I feel that people who believe the opposite of reality are trapped. To paraphrase Elvis, “They’re caught in a trap. They can’t get out.” Is it brainwashing? The process of brainwashing is to repeat, repeat, repeat, and there’s an emotional component. So, yes, the fake media voices out there are knowingly repeating malicious lies with vehement emotional displays. They are training their viewers to believe things that have no basis in truth, and they are doing it intentionally. I think that’s brainwashing with malicious intent. It has worked on millions of Americans. I wish that there was a way to stop them.
I am terrified by the way Republican leaders are now embracing and calling for violence against all who disagree with their lies. But for the people in my family and the folks next door with the Trump flags, I feel that my time is best spent making connections with them, not fearing them.
If they let loose with a wild idea, I try really hard to avoid pointing out the flaws in their logic. I don’t always succeed in keeping my trap shut, nor do I succeed in not getting all steamed up by the lies.
My liberal brain can accept that we’re all different. And I’m trying to give people a break by imagining what pattern of thought has brought them to their way of thinking.
Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site.