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Lest we forget, our species is called Homo sapiens—the “thinking man”. We are supposed to be better than apes because, so the theory goes, we can “get into somebody’s head.” In other words, we know what other people know. We can attribute mental states such as intentions, goals, and knowledge to others.

So, you would think that a person of average intelligence would have no problem watching Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Huckabee Sanders (this list could go on and on) lying through their teeth—and figure out that they themselves don’t really believe the increasingly bizarre “alternative facts” that they are spinning.

That being said, apparently, about 30% of Americans apparently do believe every word they utter. They are products of our post-factual world. 

How has this happened when understanding false beliefs is supposed to be one of the things that define us as H. sapiens?

Getting into someone’s head

Here is a classic experiment that demonstrates how our minds work in this regard:

It starts by showing children a video of a doll named Sally hiding an item. Then, they see Sally leave the room and another doll comes into the room. The second doll takes the item and hides it in a different place.

When you ask the children where Sally will look for the item upon her return, very young children, less than approximately age four, will pick the new hiding place where they themselves know the item to be.

However, older children, after about age four, understand that Sally doesn’t know what they know. That is that the item was moved from its original hiding place to a new one.

They will answer the question by saying that Sally will look for the item where she originally left it. This experiment demonstrates that even children have the capacity to “get into somebody’s mind.”

Even apes can do it

In psychology, this capacity to know what’s going on in somebody’s mind – not just know but also feel what another person feels (which is the essence of empathy) – is called “the theory of mind”. Initially, it was thought that this was a uniquely human characteristic, but now we know better.

In a series of sophisticated experiments, using eye-tracking technology, scientists repeated the doll experiment with apes (except that the doll was now King Kong instead of Sally). They showed that apes are just as smart as the older children when it came to figuring out a false belief compared to their own knowledge of the facts.

Separating fact from fiction in a post-factual world

So, assuming that the 30% of people who believe Conway and Huckabee’s “post-facts ‘facts'” are more sophisticated than children and at least as sophisticated as the apes, what explains their inability to separate fact from fiction?

And lest I come across as rank partisan, I include as alternative fact believers the leftists and liberals who believe that vaccination causes autism despite the fact that the original publication claiming evidence for it was found to be fraudulent. And that numerous well designed scientific studies have debunked the claim. This includes an /April 2019 study of more than 650,000 children.

I also include in this group those that consider as an almost religious belief that GMO will kill you and that dairy food is toxic.

Not only does science not support these unfounded beliefs, but evidence to the contrary is also in plain sight. Witness the millions of people that eat and drink those ‘harmful’ things and are still alive and kicking and in excellent health. This includes those fanatic practitioners who unwittingly are consumers of GMO, which is in almost every food we consume nowadays, regardless of claims to the contrary.

An intriguing explanation

So, that being said, how do we know what we know? Just think for a moment. Suppose you are totally isolated from other human beings and all you know is from personal observation of your immediate environment. Obviously, your fund of knowledge is going to be pretty limited.

Two cognitive scientists, Philip Fernbach a cognitive scientist at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business and Steven Sloman a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, write in their NYT article, that all human knowledge is shared. For example, we know that the earth is round, but this knowledge came not from our own observation. It came from scientists and teachers who shared the knowledge.

The evolutionary imperative of sharing knowledge is obvious. Could a stone age hunter have survived very long hunting all alone? Of course not. It took a tribe, with shared knowledge and strategy, to corner fleet-footed prey and overcome ferocious predators.

People who believe non-facts are not stupid

The issue at hand is not that the people who believe non-facts are stupid—they are not. They are simply sharing, knowingly or unknowingly, non-factual knowledge.

In the words of Fernbach and Sloman, mentioned above:

“It is remarkable that large groups of people can coalesce around a common belief when few of them individually possess the requisite knowledge to support it.”

Their solution to the problem? Insist on “expertise and nuanced analysis from our leaders.”

Ha! But they just got through telling us that, individually, we are pretty much ignorami. And that we are naturally prone to believe in whatever falsehoods “leaders” feed us. It takes a great leap of faith to believe that our “leaders” would be honest enough, thoughtful enough, empathic enough, to think of the common good rather than their own.

An alternate theory

I am a bit more cynical. I believe that people act, and vote, according to their instincts, beliefs embedded in their psyche over a lifetime, prejudices, and not necessarily through rational analysis.

They will vote for people that, on a gut level, seem like them. This is either through holding the same prejudices, or using the same language, or coming from a social background that is similar to theirs. These factors are not quantifiable. It is gut level reign supreme.

It is basically Kahneman’s System 1 – thinking system that underlies instinctual behavior. It contrasts with Kahneman’s System 2 which is thinking that drives logical and analytic behavior.

The strengths of these beliefs

Once we form our view of the world, it is hard to change it. As I said above, our mind perceives it as existential. As examples, if we grew up in the Bible Belt, we “cling to our Bible and guns”, as someone once said. But if we live in the deeply blue San Francisco Bay Area, we simply cannot abide by the perceived radical conservatism of the Deep South.

We are tribal by nature. And the common belief in alternative facts is not an accident. It makes the worldview of the true believers internally consistent, hence, its strength.

Can this change these minds?

I am afraid not by much. Our minds are inherently lazy. Kahneman’s instinctual System 1, mentioned above, rules supreme in the brain. It takes time and persistent counter-experiences to convince us that this system is wrong for us.

In plain language, “to change our minds” requires that that System 2 thinking about an experience must eventually become embedded into System 1 (instinctual).

It will take major outbreaks of polio with its devastating consequences to finally convince the mothers of Rockland County and other high vaccine refusal areas to accept childhood vaccination. Evidently, even the current measles epidemic is not enough.

Remember, during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, it took widespread unemployment and major outbreaks of crack addiction in their own communities for people to realize that “their tribe” is not immune from the “other tribe’s” problems.

The bottom line

Post-factual beliefs are deeply ingrained as a result of our tribal instincts. They are highly resistant to change. It is not going to be easy to break down the walls that tribalism has erected in our post-factual world. 


Originally published in September 2017, this post has been revised and updated for republication.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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