How Many Hats Does It Take to Solve A Pizza Problem?
If you are in the DC area and interested in a slice of pizza, you might think twice before heading over to Comet Ping Pong. Thanks to an absurd fake news story claiming Comet Ping Pong is a cover for a massive Satanic pedophilia ring frequented by Democratic pols including Hillary Clinton, the restaurant has received hundreds of threatening emails. On Monday, December 5th, a man with a rifle entered the establishment to do some fact checking and fired his weapon thankfully not harming anyone. When the police arrested him, he defended himself saying he had read online that the restaurant was harboring sex slaves and took it upon himself to investigate.
According to Thomas Jefferson “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” A little earlier than that Jesus said: “You shall know the truth; and the truth shall set you free.”
If Jesus and Jefferson are right, then fake news is a problem- a big problem.
Indeed, it’s bigger than I realized. A completely fake news story about an FBI agent investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails being found dead in an apparent murder-suicide was shared on Facebook over half a million times. No doubt, this false story had a real world impact, negatively influencing how thousands of people viewed Hillary Clinton.
The problem is we are created in a way that makes us susceptible to fake stories like this. Thanks to something known as confirmation bias, all of us (ahem…ALL of us), tend to seek out information that supports what we already believe. Cognitive dissonance, entertaining ideas that contradict what we believe, is tiring and painful. It takes effort. Our brains are made to notice the details in the world that make sense to us and to ignore the details that would require us to rethink our fundamental beliefs.
In The Irrational Jesus I cite a study on smokers and nonsmokers. Researches created a newspaper (talk about fake news) that contained stories about how smoking was linked to cancer and stories about how smoking wasn’t linked to cancer. The non-smokers showed a willingness to read all of the articles. The smokers, however, only read the articles claiming that smoking wasn’t linked to cancer. They liked this view and enjoyed reading about it. They didn’t even read the stories suggesting that smoking was linked to cancer. They just didn’t want to think about that possibility.
In another study focused on people who believed they had ESP, extra sensory perception, researchers found that subjects noticed and recorded the times when they were thinking about their mother and their mother called them on the telephone. Yes, these subjects ignored both the numbers of times they were thinking about their mom and she didn’t call as well as when they weren’t thinking about her and she did. The subjects simply weren’t aware of how often their own experience actually disconfirmed their personal belief about their special abilities.
In another study psychologists discovered that people are more likely to remember interactions that conform to stereotypes and are less likely to remember events that break expected patterns. If a person learns that their Canadian friend doesn’t care for hockey or their Mexican friends dislikes spicy foods, it will be harder to remember these details. We remember what makes sense to how we already think.
Confirmation bias means we don’t believe what we see; we see what we believe.
And this is what makes fake news so deliciously easy to fall for. These stories are fantasies written to support what we deeply, deeply wish were true about the world. Hillary Clinton involved in a pedophilia ring held in a pizza parlor? To those who already think of her as “crooked Hillary” this ridiculous story is simply more proof of what they already “know” to be true. And remember the computer scientists who suggested there was evidence that the Russians hacked our voting machines? That story went viral across progressive social media even after the circumstantial evidence was debunked. People believed it because they wanted it to be true; not because it was true.
So is truth done? Is there no hope? Hang on. Just hang on. Everybody just take a long, deep breath. It’s too soon to mourn over the pine coffin of truth just yet.
First, confirmation bias afflicts all of us, but being aware of it really can make a difference. Accepting that we really don’t see the world as it is but we see through a glass dimly can help us to be more curious and to question not only what others are asserting but what we ourselves are also hungry to believe.
Second, when we know this we can avail ourselves of helpful tools- things like Snopes and cites like http://www.fakenewswatch.com. Knowing that a cite publishes fake news should give us a healthy skepticism.
Third, we can learn to see the world through multiple perspectives. One of the best practices for coming to ground with the world around us is known as the Six Hats method developed by Edward de Bono. When we are considering something, especially when we’re in a group, De Bono invites us to figuratively imagine wearing a set of colored hats, each offering us a different role to play. When we don the blue “process” hat, for instance, we are concerned to think through the process by which we want to move forward together. When we wear the white “facts” hat, we want to press for what we really can know for sure about what we are considering. But then, when we put on the red “emotion” hat, we ask ourselves how we are feeling about the subject. When we put on the green “creativity” hat we try to think out of the proverbial box and imagine all the different possibilities open to us. Then, we try to think positively when we wear the yellow “benefits” hat. And, most significantly for the topic of confirmation bias, when we put on the black “negative” hat we allow ourselves to think about all that could go wrong or not work out.
So often these hats are present when we meet in groups, but unfortunately, we type cast people into certain roles. There’s the emotional person who is always gushing about possibilities; there’s that negative dude with the cloud over him only too happy to tell you why your idea won’t work. What De Bono invites us to do is to defy these stereotypes, step out of our normal roles, wear all of the hats, and to consider the world from a variety of perspectives.
The world is so enormous and strange, none of us are seeing the whole. I get excited when contemplate becoming more open to the world around me and seeing more clearly.
And…I also like pizza. And if learning more about confirmation bias to save a pizza place is wrong…then I don’t want to be right. J