I used to sell cars. In this industry, a lot is taught about selling ideas, products, and most importantly, yourself. The lessons learned are profound and ultimately bring light to the fact that people can easily be manipulated into believing things that aren’t based entirely on fact.
Why does this happen? It’s largely perspective and framing, but it also involves the reasoning process behind why someone believes as they do. It’s not just objective facts that count. It’s the entire process that brings people into making sense of them. Beliefs come from somewhere, and it’s usually not just based on evidence.
Ultimately, I find that we most often pick an opinion based on a personal experience, affiliation, or feeling, and then seek evidence to confirm it. We spend years defending viewpoints as they were taught to us, and we ignore evidence that is on the contrary. After all, contrary evidence doesn’t follow the belief system that we subscribe to. It doesn’t follow the logical reasoning process that brought us to our own beliefs.
The most influencial factors include personal experiences, along with personal affiliations. High school cliques operate around this principle. A leader (or “alpha”) is in charge of controlling how the group behaves, dresses, acts, and engages with its peers. The group’s following tends to be biased towards the viewpoint and belief system of the alpha by affiliation. There is a cost associated with disagreeing and defecting from their group. That cost is disapproval.
People are rarely inclined to change their viewpoints because there is often a cost associated with doing so. Confirmation bias causes people to view evidence through a lens of truth, and evidence that is to the contrary is instantly labeled as faulty. Truthfully, not everything is objective. Almost everyone will argue that their belief system was built upon evidence and facts, but most will never stray from some sort of confirmation bias. We always look for the evidence that proves us right.
How Facts are Framed
I’m a religious person, but I also consider other viewpoints and am always evaluating. Everyone claims they are right, and while there is most certainly an objective truth, we cannot simply listen without evidence and be assured that one particular viewpoint is “it.” I ask a number of religious leaders from different faiths to explain their viewpoints and beliefs as a means of searching for answers in a complicated world. I was talking to one particular leader a few months back, and I walked away being told that “to be open minded is a sin. God doesn’t want us seeking truth elsewhere.”
This is an example of framing. It’s a psychological manipulation technique that relies on framing a situation in terms of what we fear the most. In this case, it’s disapproval of God. They attempted to frame open-mindedness as something that God disapproves of, and therefore, by me not listening to them with closed ears and unequivocally accepting it as truth, I was earning God’s disapproval. The fear is strong enough to keep many people in cult religions today. Many of these religious cults (including those that involved mass suicides with the belief of imminent salvation afterwards) have manipulated their members much like this.
Reasonably speaking, truth is truth. We shouldn’t need to be closed-minded to protect the truth. If their words were the truth, they would be very comfortable telling people to have an open mind. It would be based on evidence, and it would arrive at the conclusion that they expect.
What I’ve done here is I’ve realistically looked at this viewpoint from the opposite perspective than the one that was framed to me. I asked “What if this is false? How would people need to defend it? What behaviors would we expect to see?” And framing tactics that were employed on me during this conversation marked the list. This sort of thing is exactly the kind of behavior one could expect from those defending beliefs that they are unsure of.
This is, in part, how we are controled by mass media and by our leaders alike. Facts exist, but the facts we hear aren’t always the facts that represent truth. It’s not only what they tell us that counts. It’s also what they don’t. Omission speaks louder than words.
Deconstructing the Frame
An excercise that I often give people to identify truth in tricky situations involves playing a modified form of devil’s advocate. A perfect example of this is practical on the job. Almost every month, someone comes to me asking for advice. They’d like to know how they are performing on the job, and whether their job is at risk. As soon as their manager tells them anything positive, they jump to conclusions and assume that they are safe. As soon as they are in trouble for something minor, they assume they will shortly be fired. Sadly, when there is a lot of turnover on my job, these questions are asked more frequently than I would wish to admit.
To identify the truth here, we need to ask ourselves not to look for evidence that our jobs are secure, but to look for evidence that our jobs aren’t. But it’s not necessarily quite the same as taking a negative viewpoint. It involves asking what the ideal outcome would actually look like.
If, for example, my job isn’t at risk and I’m well received at work, I would expect a few things:
- Management would be actively invested in my development.
- Coworkers would get along with me well and collaborate and respect my experience.
- I would receive good feedback from management.
- Promotion opportunities would feel possibile and achievable.
- I would feel comfortable around management and around my peers.
Management wouldn’t encourage the above behaviors towards an employee who was underperforming and not appreciated on the job. If those behaviors are absent, it’s a red flag, even without direct negative feedback. If those behaviors are (generally speaking) present, it is generally safe to assume that management values their employee, as they would not put forth this kind of effort into someone who was not well received.
Asking these sorts of “what if” questions are extremely powerful methods of determining the truth in unknown situations. Ask “what would it look like if this viewpoint were true? What would I expect to happen or to be seen?” Afterwards, compare this outlook to the realistic facts in front of you. Often, you will realize the truth more quickly than you expected.