The roots of post-truth identities: emotionality, cognitive biases, and changing media systems

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Lying and deception are as old as human communication, but post-truth involves something more than these (D’Ancona 2017; Kalpokas 2019). McIntyre (2018), for example, defines posttruth as ‘not the abandonment of facts, but a corruption of the process by which facts are credibly gathered and reliably used to shape . . . beliefs about reality’. Similarly, Kalpokas’s account (2019, 5) suggests that post-truth implies a general erosion of the boundaries between truth and falsity: a ‘condition of detachment of truth-claims from verifiable facts and the primacy of criteria other than verifiability’. Fears about propaganda and misinformation have often hinged on whether people will be directly deceived by falsehoods, but the lesson of the past is that people are just as likely to become uncertain about what to trust and believe (Chadwick 2019). This was an important strand of dissident critiques of the neo-Stalinist states in Eastern Europe. It has its origins in revisionist accounts of propaganda that focus not on mass deception but on how a spiral of distrust grows in conditions of chaos and indeterminacy. 1’ost-truth identities are best situated in this overarching context.


In Kalpokas’s account (2019, 5), chief among the ‘criteria other than verifiability’ for truth claims is ‘affective investment’ in emotional narratives: ways of understanding that people value, not because they offer ‘better’ understanding of the world but rather because they have utility for maintaining a sense of personal well-being and for influencing the attitudes and behaviour of others. Such narratives are also important for forming and maintaining a stable sense of self and collective identity.

The centrality of emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, to people’s processing of information is a central theme in accounts of post-truth (Laybats and Tredinnick 2016). Social psychologists have long shown that affect is important in decision-making (Lerner, Li, Valdesolo, and Kassam 2015), but the literature on post-truth has stressed emotionality’s heightened significance when individuals attempt to find order and coherence within a messy, complex, and overwhelming abundance of information and opinion (Metzger and Flanagin 2013). In a hypercompetitive media system, emotionally engaging media content is an important generator of individual attention, perhaps even more so than when broadcast media were the dominant means of communication (Papacharissi 2014).

Cognitive biases

Since the mid-twentieth century, strands of social science research, particularly in disciplines such as psychology', economics, management, communication, and political science, have challenged rationality-based accounts of human attitudes and behaviour. Studies of cognitive biases beginning in the 1950s drew attention to the prevalence of irrationality in decision-making, and their findings have had a significant impact on recent debates about post-truth (e.g. Asch 1955; Lerner, Li, Valdesolo, and Kassam 2015; Metzger and Flanagin 2013; Tversky and Kahneman 1974; Wason 1960). Understanding of the consistent susceptibility of individuals to false information has improved significantly since the turn of this century even if much (though not all) of the research has applied concepts that pre-date recent concerns.

Behavioural research has shown that people fall into predictable traps when making judgments (e.g. Asch 1955; Tversky and Kahneman 1974; Wason 1960). Two concepts with particular relevance are motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. Motivated reasoning is a state of being in which our decision-making and truth assessments are swayed by what we want to believe, even if what we want to believe is not in accordance with observable facts (Kunda 1990). Individuals strive to maintain a positive self-image and will often make irrational choices to reduce the conflict they experience when faced with information that contradicts this self-image (e.g. Elliot and Devine 1994; Festinger 1957). Confirmation bias (Nickerson 1998; Wason 1960) is a cognitive process through which people enact motivated reasoning and prioritise information that conforms with decisions they have already made, especially when such decisions have been guided by strongly held beliefs. People are often skilled in developing rationalisations that support their prior beliefs (Lodge and Taber 2013).

Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias have featured in much of the research on misperceptions. Some research has extended this approach to encompass ideological beliefs and group belonging. For example, Kahan (2013,1) points to another type of motivated reasoning—identity-protective cognition — wherein individuals tend to process information in ways that help them develop beliefs that ‘signify their loyalty to important affinity groups’. In a ‘self-defence’strategy designed to maintain the status, social support, and sense of belonging that derive from group affinity, people tend to resist information that contradicts the dominant beliefs of the group whose membership they particularly value.

This resonates with another relevant cognitive bias from the early days of social psychology — social conformity. First demonstrated in laboratory experiments by Asch in the 1950s (e.g. Asch 1955) and replicated in several studies since then, people’s bias towards social conformity means that they are more likely to adopt false beliefs if they observe belief in falsehoods among individuals who surround them. The effect is particularly strong when there appears to be a visible consensus among numerous others. Beliefs are profoundly relational. Many do not derive from direct observation but from our perception that others in our social networks exhibit them. We might also perceive that there is some degree of consensus among other believers, and, if we lack information that will counter that consensus, this gives information particular force based on what Kuran and Sunstein (1999) have termed ‘availability cascades’. An availability cascade occurs when people who have poor or incomplete information take shortcuts by simply basing their beliefs on the beliefs of others. The result is that people join an emerging consensus because it is easier to do and more likely to help them fit in and advance their social status in that particular context.

Of course, most post-truth identities do not find genuinely mass support, so it is important to consider how individual dispositions can shape susceptibility to false beliefs. Media and social psychologists are starting to learn more about these dispositions. For example, ‘conspiracy mentality’ is linked to devout religious beliefs, low levels of science literacy, feelings of disempowerment, and cynicism towards experts and public institutions (Landrum, Olshansky, and Richards 2019; Landrum and Olshansky 2019).

A further key point here is that if the cognitive biases and mentalities that lead people to adopt false beliefs were observed by social psychologists before the recent debate about posttruth, what is special about the recent period? We now discuss how systemic change in the media environment over the last decade has contributed to a context in which these basic human frailties have become increasingly consequential for public communication.

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