Commentary: When fiction is more believable than facts

By Dr. Joseph Zingaro

Where was Google in 1938?

On the eve of Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles broadcast a radio show called, “The War of the Worlds.” Unfortunately, many listeners mistook a show on the radio for news. Listeners may have been particularly vulnerable to believing the story because it was broadcast the day before Halloween (when we may be expecting spooky stuff to happen) and talked about Martians invading Earth (when people from outer space were a concern for some of the public – but not for most scientists). The headline from The New York Times the next day read: “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as a Fact.”

Spoiler alert: There is no such thing as magic. Every magician knows this. These clever entertainers understand that how we perceive and understand things primes us to be gullible. We want to believe in magic – so we do. But people cannot be made to float in midair, people cannot walk through walls, and people cannot disappear. Audiences may be particularly vulnerable to believing in magic because they want to believe that their senses will not deceive them: “If I saw it, it happened.” We like to be entertained.

We don’t like to be fooled. As a psychologist who has worked with individuals whose partner was unfaithful, I know that one of the greatest sources of their pain is that they felt fooled and others might think them foolish. In retrospect, these individuals can often remember when the “red flags” that they saw and knew were real, were ignored or explained away. For some, accepting the painful evidence that their partner was not who they thought they were would lead them to acknowledge the need to make big changes in their life. And who wants to make big changes? As Paul Simon sings, “ … and there’s all that weight to be lost.”

A child’s world may be simpler because they think in black and white, all or none. They aren’t able to cognitively perceive nuances or abstractions until their preteen and teenage years. This is why parents of 14-year-olds have often told me, “What happened to my 10-year-old child? They had common sense, didn’t back talk and liked me.”

Young children, for the most part, accept the world their parents present to them. They uncritically accept what the parent says is good and bad, fair and unfair, real and fantasy. In adolescence, the child begins to think for himself and discovers the world is mostly gray, not black and white. The development of critical thinking skills invites the adolescent to challenge the world their parents have shown him. This is why adolescents can be as oppositional as they are particularly vulnerable to suggestion. What they think they know about the world and how the world is may be two very different things – even when they are convinced of their facts.

There are facts in our current environment that may lead us to be as vulnerable as the listeners to Orson Welles’ 1938 radio show. Our nation has been described as divided; we want to believe that what we see and hear (on TV, in the newspaper, on Facebook, etc.) is real; accepting that there is probably much more gray area than black and white may seem like too much work.

As the old joke goes: “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” When we use critical thinking skills, we may not like it. Critical thinking may invite us out of our comfort zone, make it hard to believe our former facts. Critical thinking may reduce our dependence on using our feelings to determine what’s real and what isn’t, what’s a good choice and what isn’t. Maybe a former foe has a good idea.

Learning is a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward kind of process. There is a tipping point in learning where we can’t continue to believe what we once believed to be true. Ask most 4-year-old children if there is a Santa Claus, and you will probably get an excited affirmative answer. Ask the same question to a 13-year-old, and they look at you like you have two heads. They cannot – even if they really try – believe in Santa because their critical thinking skills (which now include abstract reasoning) won’t let them! If you only think in black and white, it’s easier to believe in Santa: Your parents said so, and there are gifts under the tree. What more evidence do you need? Santa exists or he doesn’t: There are gifts, therefore, he exists!

It’s in print, and I saw the photo, what more do I need? Lots. We do better to exercise critical thinking skills and check the “facts” we may have been excited to hear or see or read, or, like the audience of the magician or entertainer, we may be fooled by our own expectations.

Feelings aren’t facts. We know that witnesses to auto accidents give different versions of what they saw, what they say happened. This is because feelings (fear, shock, surprise) affect perception. There are the “facts” of the accident: length of the brake marks, number of people injured, how fast the car was going and the feelings the witnesses experienced. When the police interview five witnesses, they often get five stories – lots of overlap in the stories, but five stories with differences, nonetheless.

News reporters are not robots – they have feelings. Their feelings may have an impact on what they see, hear and report. If you don’t believe me, watch Fox News and CNN report on the same story. News reporters try to control for their biases (feelings and assumptions). Maybe as consumers we need to do the same thing. Maybe listening to more than one source for our news and information, maybe using fact-checking websites to help us determine what is and is not happening will reduce the feelings that can get in the way of good reality testing and critical thinking, feelings like hate, prejudice, anger and fear.

The sage advice: Think before you act. It may be very helpful as we approach our time to vote.

Joseph C. Zingaro, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who has practiced in Delaware for more than 30 years.