One of the most impressive Superbowl ads was the Washington Post commercial stressing the need for truth and honesty as vital to democracy and a civilized society. The implication was that their reporting fitted these requirements and thus were serving a greater purpose. The Washington Post could be the most honest, truthful publication in the world but that’s not the point. The bigger problem is that increasingly the world is not interested in the objective truth, merely their own individual truth, i.e. opinions.
Writing in the May 2014 edition of The Atlantic Emma Green reviewing research on the holocaust said, “Only a third of the world’s population believe the genocide has been accurately described in historical accounts. Some said they thought the number of people who died has been exaggerated; others said they believe it’s a myth.”
TV news shows are full of so-called experts pushing their agenda without any regard or reference to meaningful data. The world has become increasingly egotistical and self-centered with scant regard to the evidence let alone truth.
Some of this disaster can be blamed at the feet of marketing. Ever since Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays realized that new insights into the psyche could be used to manipulate people, Marketing and Public Relations have created communication based on manipulation often in defiance of the facts. (For more, please watch the BBC’s 2002 documentary The Century of the Self). And that pattern of communication has filtered down through the culture, so that people believe communication is about influence and getting what you want. The rise in the recognition of the need for authenticity, says a lot about how inauthentic much communication is.
If Bernays hijacked contemporary psychological theory to manipulate perhaps it’s time for us to do the same: to emphasize that contemporary neuroscience shows human beings not to be rational, but driven by cognitive bias and emotional comfort. With the advent of technology, cognitive bias has been amplified by curating content that gives people what they want to read rather than access to diverse views and data. Through social proof it allows people to reaffirm their beliefs and ideas rather than question them.
Facts and truth have been washed away in a sea of sensationalism, designed to get your attention, excite you and, if possible, capture your personal information.
This culture is neither healthy to us as individuals nor collectively as a nation.
The disinterest and denial of data and facts, leads to extremism, hate and conflict. When we ignore our ability to consider, and accept facts as well as produce and access valuable data, we’re definitely traveling the wrong way down the evolutionary trail. Getting to the truth is one thing, getting others to believe it is quite another.