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Friday, December 21, 2018

Why Some People Believe Their Own Lies

     A few weeks back one evening we had some light rain that changed to snow overnight. The next day it was sunny and the temperature was in the low 40s. In the morning someone posted a warning on Facebook informing people that the city streets were snow and ice covered and it was a slow commute to work. 
     One reader posted a comment that the conditions of the streets were the mayor's fault and a couple of people agreed. It was the stupidest thing! Our mayor is a Republican and the comments, at least the original one, came from a known staunch Democrat. Evidently they thought the mayor was calling the streets department telling them to plow and salt this street, but not that one.
     Our city has long had a pdf download prepared by city council outlining what streets will be plowed and salted and the order in which they will be done. Additionally, the guidelines specify the conditions that must prevail for the work to be done and if it is to be delayed or not done at all. It's up to the superintendent of the streets department to follow those guidelines. The mayor has absolutely nothing to do with it. Blaming the mayor is part of the age of “fake news” and “alternative facts” that we live in.
     Whether we realize it or not, most of us harbor at least some false beliefs. But, deliberately pushing peoples' hot-button on political issues is harmful. Ultimately, our beliefs influence the way we vote, whom we elect, and what policies are enacted. 
     So, why do people so easily believe such blatant falsehoods? Psychologists have shown it is explained by a relatively small amount of cognitive biases or mental shortcuts. People routinely use mental shortcuts to understand what happens around them because we don't have the time or gumption to sit down and research the facts. Sometimes those shortcuts are just plain wrong.
     One such shortcut is called conformation bias. If the "facts" appear to support something we already believe, we will accept them as true.
     The availability heuristic is another reason. It's a mental shortcut that relies on examples that come to a person's mind when evaluating a topic, concept, method or decision. It operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternatives which are not as readily recalled. Subsequently, people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward that latest news. 
     Another factor is emotional reasoning. It is a cognitive process by which a person concludes that their emotional reaction proves something is true, regardless of the evidence. Emotional reasoning amplifies the effects of other cognitive distortions. We are all swayed by emotions, but emotions aren't always driven by logic and reason, particularly when it comes to many of our beliefs. As a result, we sometimes end up using our reasoning to justify or defend a conclusion that we’ve already drawn based on our emotions. 
     Did you know there is a study (recently published in the journal Brain and Cognition) which suggests that in as little as 45 minutes older adults can come to believe a lie they tell is the truth? 
     In the study, the subjects aged 60-92 proved significantly more likely than the 18-24-year-olds to accept as the truth a lie they had told less than an hour earlier. The study claims older adults have more difficulty distinguishing between what's real and what's not; telling a lie scrambles older people's memory so they have a harder time recalling what really happened. The conclusion was lying alters memory and creates a new memory for something that didn't happen. 
     Now you know. Old geezers really believe their own lies. That explains a lot.

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