After watching another week of election-year shenanigans, my teen-aged daughter asked me a pretty adult question: “why are so many people so easily deceived?
She was thinking of a particular set of people on one side of the political spectrum, but I thought bigger. The hard truth, after all, is that we’re all susceptible to deception, even as we’re all prone to deceiving others. Why do we struggle to tell what’s true from what’s false? To start with, I can think of at least three reasons.
Reason #1: Our own senses deceive us
We like to believe our eyes–and to a lesser extent our ears and other senses–but the truth is they deceive us all the time. It’s really not their fault. Our sensory-perceptual systems come designed to fill in information that isn’t actually there and to jump to all sorts of conclusions.
And for good reason: back on the savanna, if you wanted to catch the prey and avoid the predators, you had to think fast. On average, being mostly right in a matter of seconds was better than being completely right in a matter of minutes, by which time the prey was long gone–or, worse, you were. So our ancient ancestors evolved perceptual systems that enabled them to react appropriately in real time, most of the time.
For purposes of our survival, this was generally a good thing. But it’s problematic for the prospect of truth seeking. Our senses are our primary–and arguably our only–source of knowledge about the world around us. If they’re making things up as they go, then how are we ever going to get to the truth?
“Through our brains!” you might think.
Not so fast.
Reason #2: Our brains are inherently biased
While our brains do give us the ability to doubt what our senses tell us and to think critically in all kinds of ways, they also come pre-loaded with a bunch of biases–and, worse, they’re basically blind to their own ignorance.
Peruse this list of cognitive biases and you’ll see what I mean. Here are more than 90 carefully cataloged and well-documented ways in which our brains systematically deceive us. To name just a few: we tend to worry more about the costs of being wrong than we value the benefits of being right; we tend to assume that our most striking memories are likely to predict the future even though most of the past wasn’t nearly so memorable, and we each systematically assume that we’re less biased than other people.
Again, the ultimate underlying reason may be the need for speed: we often have to think fast–and that makes us slow to detect the holes in our thinking and quick to rely on shortcuts that end run rationality.
As individual truths seekers, then, we’re fundamentally flawed. But at least we have each other. At least we can compare notes, share ideas, and correct each other’s errors, right?
Yes, and no.
Reason #3: Our ability to learn leaves us open to getting schooled
Sharing information can obviously be hugely helpful–for everything from delivering aid during a disaster in Mongolia to finding a restaurant in Anytown, USA. But the bits of information we share almost always originate with and/or flow through other deception-prone human beings. And it’s no coincidence that the word for our ability to share ideas–“communications”–is practically synonymous with lying in certain contexts.
In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the key to our species’ success is our ability to do what I’m doing to you right now, dear reader–to wit, to plant ideas in each other’s heads by the simple act of sharing words: “Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.”
But like all truly remarkable gifts, this one came with a price. Specifically, the cost of being able to learn from others’ experiences is being susceptible to their deceptions. As Harari goes on to note, “the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.” Precisely to the extent that I am open to receiving information, I am open to receiving misinformation. Because I have been designed to understand what others have learned, so others can learn to design my understanding.
In sum: we’re not really built for truth seeking. We’re built for surviving–by making good enough sense of things and banding together around shared stories. Actual truth seeking requires us to take the extra time and energy (and risk) to question what our eyes, our minds, and other people tell us. It takes work that, in any given case, may not be worth it.
That said, the fact that we can and sometimes do deliberately seek the truth is critical. It’s part of what sets us apart from the world’s other critters. It’s also the critical characteristic of every disciplined pursuit of understanding, from the sciences to the arts. And it’s one good way to tell who should–and who shouldn’t–be taken seriously in life. People who try to find the truth and wind up disagreeing with you about it are almost always worth hearing out. People who simply bend the truth to suit their own ends almost never are. And you’re smart enough not to be deceived about who’s who.
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