You’ve heard it, no doubt. Someone proclaims the ‘truth’ because they heard it somewhere. So many people seem so willing to trust what they believe is true rather than what has been shown to be so. And when challenged with the facts, the reply is often: ‘Well, that’s just the way I feel.’ In truth, they are being honest. We should not be surprised.
A fact is a reproducible, repeatable, verifiable observation. Something is or is not a fact. A belief is a value judgement, a choice among multiple valuable but competing factors. There may be many possible paths forward in hopes of a ‘best’ possible outcome. Value judgements require tradeoffs; different people, or even the same person, in different situations might make different choices. There is not necessarily a right or wrong choice, no yes or no binary solution. Facts are the realm of the prefrontal cortical aware functions, where analysis, deliberation and intention take place, processing in the brain a person is aware of. Contrary to popular belief, as we saw In Free the Brain, value judgements are not made there. It’s in the Hidden Brain, processing outside of awareness, where these insights are put in the context of a person’s worldview and crafted into a story that balances the various factors at play. A person only becomes aware of that choice through feelings. The Hidden Brain does not communicate using words. Those prefrontal cortical areas certainly contribute valuable analysis to the process, and although we have been led to believe that one’s beliefs are made with deliberate intention and reflection, it’s not necessarily so.
In those prefrontal cortical aware areas, words are attached in order to construct a narrative that communicates the story. These areas can accept the story as is, or question it, but it prefers to act like a press secretary- defend, rationalize, justify the story and share that narrative in its best light. And like a press secretary, this requires a willingness to ignore, dismiss, or manipulate that which might cast the narrative into doubt. Why this preference? The brain knows that in order to act, a person must be all in, fully on board with the narrative, to be willing to invest the energy to act in the face of uncertainty. That does not take a perfect ‘certainty,’ just enough certainty. After all, a time sensitive life threatening situation demands action; if we wait to find out everything, it may well be too late. Although we face very few situations like this in the modern world, our brains have yet to realize that.
The brain is looking for certainty in order to act. It prefers to evaluate any issue as a problem with a solution. Apply the solution and the problem goes away- on to the next challenge. No mess, no fuss. Above all else, the brain wants to conserve its limited energy to have something in the bank for those unforeseen threats.
But what if the issue is not a problem at all; what if there is no binary right or wrong solution? What if the issue is really a dilemma- an issue with multiple valuable but competing factors in which there is no solution, only a search for the best balance of these factors in order to find the best possible next step forward? Then, a value judgement is called for. There is much less certainty in that, it’s much more conflicting, and it requires a much bigger energy investment to weigh the possibilities.Treating a dilemma as if it is a problem; missing, dismissing or ignoring important factors; and looking for a solution when there is none often results in a misguided choice- one that in retrospect could and should have been seen as not the best option available.
It’s not that the brain can’t act like an analyst and see a dilemma for what it is. It’s not that we can’t spend the energy required to make a value judgement with eyes wide open. It’s just that the less energy spent the better, and the press secretary delivers that. As long as the result is good enough, we are happy. When it becomes clear that the narrative is no longer good enough, we feel ambivalent.
And that ambivalence leads to another dilemma because the press secretary in us doesn’t give up that easily, even if it means spending just as much energy as the analyst would. And don’t underestimate its power; the press secretary has many tools at its disposal. These prefrontal cortical aware areas are very good at parsing things into binary choices, even when there aren’t any. Everyone wants to believe they are making the correct choice (most people don’t choose to do something wrong). The press secretary takes advantage of this, pitching the issue in terms of totally right or entirely wrong.
When its ‘facts’ can’t support its narrative, when other people’s message cannot be countered, it uses a good guy/ bad guy technique and attacks the messenger. Discrediting the messenger justifies not having to listen to that message, no matter how correct it is. Good guys are to be listened to no matter how wrong they are. Covid has revealed some people can only navigate their world in terms of good and evil. There must be a bad guy, someone at fault, someone who must be stopped, a conspiracy at play. This is problem thinking in the face of a dilemma- looking for a one step solution that once applied will end the problem. It’s hard to live in the gray, even though the world is mostly gray. The brain prefers to see a black and white image.
Even then, there may come a time when the narrative can no longer be defended, when the press secretary's rationalizations no longer hold up, when the aware functions can no longer justify its position. At this point, the person still has a ‘choice’- stick to the story or change one’s mind. And when the Hidden Brain reconsiders and decides that hanging on to the story is still its ‘best’ path forward, we hear: ‘Well, that’s just the way I feel.’
And this is honest because the Hidden Brain communicates its value judgment through feelings. A choice has been made, even though the person may not be fully aware of that. All they know is their feeling; translated, this means there is no current information they are willing to engage with as meaningful enough to change that belief. The Hidden Brain has judged that there is less energy to be expended by keeping to the narrative. Given the apparent options it sees, it is willing to perhaps suffer the consequences of a choice that may no longer be the best available option. What’s being missed is that there are always options, even if you can’t see them right now. Changing one’s mind is judged to have no net benefit for the energy invested. And this is all happening outside of awareness; we have no idea this is going on.
In this mindset, contrary facts serve only to cast the narrative into question and possibly pull the rug out from under the very thing that the person craves— enough certainty to act upon. Convinced the struggle is between good and evil, right and wrong, believing a bad person must be defeated, and their very survival is in jeopardy, they must act now with the only one solution they have- my solution.
In a scenario where sources are discredited so their facts are not to be believed, what else does a person have to act on other than what they want to believe, even though that belief cannot be observed or substantiated. After all, a person has to have some basis on which to act in the face of a time sensitive threat. Remember, a threat activates the amygdala, which focuses vision on the immediate challenge, preferentially shunts blood to muscles to be ready to act and concentrates effort and attention- not exactly a recipe for a broad consideration of all the factors. And consider this- challenging someone’s beliefs is akin to challenging their self image and self worth- now that is a threat.
Whatever you might say about a narrative that doesn’t hold water, it does provide the ‘certainty’ of an answer. And for some in the context of their lives, that is more important than whether that answer is the best choice possible in the given circumstances at the time. This is problem thinking in the face of a dilemma. And with Covid, misguided choices are there for all to see and all to endure.
Only when there is a catalyst meaningful enough to the person that makes it abundantly clear the narrative is not going to give a good enough result might the value judgement tilt in favor of changing one’s mind. It can happen. People do sometimes become open to what they are missing, dismissing or ignoring. Sometimes through the din of the press secretary, the Hidden Brain can actually hear the facts. But as we have seen throughout Covid, some people just can’t get there. The press secretary function is just that strong. And with it, the confusion of belief and fact.