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Embracing Both Convenient and Inconvenient Truths

We don’t need an infographic to tell us we are bombarded with a lot of information every day. But just in case, I give you one below, courtesy of UC-San Diego and Fast Company. It’s something like 3.6 zettabytes worth or whatever. How do we make sense of it all?

Well, we don’t. In particular, we certainly don’t tend to seek to understand much of it. Instead, we use the values of our social communities to filter what we share and what we conveniently ignore, without a lot of thought.

Baylor University humanities professor Alan Jacobs has a new book coming out next week called How to Think that I’m looking forward to reading, but New York Times columnist David Brooks gave us a preview earlier this week. The book argues that critical thinking creates trouble and thinking is slow, and that’s a problem when we spend most of our time “lost in the spin cycle of social media, partisan bickering, and confirmation bias.”

The confirmation bias is particularly problematic because Brooks notes that what we’re really trying to do is “be liked by our group.” We’re not really seeking the truth. We’re seeking facts we can share, things we believe, and people we can listen to that bond us more closely to our tribe.

This is essentially called wishful thinking. Dr. Shahram Heshmat, associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Springfield, says when we want something to be true, we convince ourselves it is true. “We pick out bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices.”

Binded together by social media, we form ourselves into clusters that confirm and reconfirm, over and over again, our worldviews. It’s motivating, and draws us tighter together, and that feels good.

Of course, it’s also dangerous. Suddenly, only selective facts matter, not inconvenient ones. Let’s pick out U.S. President Trump to start, just because it’s easy topical:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” (Campaign launch speech, New York City, June 16, 2015)

These statements aren’t supported “facts.” The fact is that immigrants to the U.S. contribute less to crime than native-born Americans. So was President Trump just saying this to get elected? Maybe at first. It’s actually likely that he’s since convinced himself of the truth of his statements over time, because saying them has generated positive reinforcement — bonding him more closely to a social group (his core supporter base) — and he enjoys the affirmation.

This isn’t a partisan issue. Or rather, it’s true of any partisans, almost by definition. From the White House supposedly not mentioning Jews in their statement memorializing the holocaust to provocative things conservative former Congresswoman Michelle Bachman supposedly said following the Las Vegas massacre, there’s plenty of reinforcing myths that those on the left can share with each other to validate what they believe, because these fake-news nuggets are easy “truths.”

In fact, research published in Social Pyschological and Personality Science in 2013 by Geoffrey Etherell, Mark Brandt and Christine Reyna found that both conservatives and liberals support discrimination against “value violators” equally. Others have also found roughly equal prejudice among conservatives and liberals.

Facts matter, and not just when they are convenient to you. So what do we do?

Brooks says the same social environment that has seemingly depreciated the value of thinking can get us out of this. “If you want people to be reasonable, create groups where it’s cool to be reasonable,” he says.

A non-profit organization I belong to, the Citizens League, is one example of what that can look like. Belonging to this “group” means valuing certain principles: Those affected by a problem should have a voice in solving said problem. Evidence-based research is crucial. Transparency is best.

For example, the league recently conducted a study for the City of St. Paul, Minn., to find a way to raise funds for essential city services from the many non-profits in the city that are exempt from property taxes. Underlying the request was an assumption that St. Paul had more such tax-exempt property than other area cities. The Citizens League task force discovered that wasn’t true. There was still a lot of value in recommending solutions to the problem, but it was no longer framed as a uniquely St. Paul problem. That discovery was celebrated by league members because it reflects their values.

As we seek to pursue Open Minds solutions to business or marketing challenges, we need to build a culture where Open Minds is genuinely cool. It’s important we don’t just look for facts that validate our teams’ pre-formed opinions. We have to value research to understand our stakeholders, the cultural environment they live in, why alternatives to what our clients offer might have real merit and then, given that context, what genuine value we can bring to the conversation. We can encourage that search for understanding by bringing in diversity of perspectives — from people with different educational, cultural and racial backgrounds for instance. We should critically read long-form content for understanding, and recognize that social feeds on their own tell us what, but why and how take time to explain and understand. And we should get out in the world, the real one, to practice getting comfortable with uncomfortable.

After all, if we inspire ourselves to think differently, maybe we’ll be better at inspiring others.




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