OC Emberton

Why some lies are preferable to the truth

You know how Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow? They don’t. Remember that Salem witches were burnt at the stake? They weren’t. You say Christopher Columbus discovered America? He didn’t.

The truth of something has little to do with it being accepted as fact. Actually, most universally held ‘truths’ have an altogether different standard: people find them palatable.

A palatable truth is one that excites a list of human biases, like:

Things that support what we already believe (confirmation bias)

Scientists have long shown that if a fact supports what you believe, you’re more likely to embrace it. Facts that threaten your beliefs are subconsciously discredited and ignored.

Things that endanger us (negativity bias)

Urgent danger demands our attention. A headline of “Terrorist Attack Tomorrow!” sells better than “Terrorists Don’t Do Much, Actually”. The fact that most such headlines are clearly wrong doesn’t stop them from working; we’re enchanted by what can hurt us.

Things that go with the flow of a crowd (bandwagon effect)

People like to follow crowds, which actually makes a lot of sense. Crowds might know something you don’t, and veering too far from them can be dangerous. With the Internet there’s now a crowd for everything, which is just another way of supporting what you already believe.

Things that are morally fair (just-world fallacy)

People like happy endings. They like justice to be served. They like there to be a clear good and bad guy. In fact, we’re wired to rewrite facts to support the illusion that the world works this way. Facts that go against this view are hard to accept.

Things that rhyme (rhyme-as-reason effect)

People find statements that rhyme, to be more truthful. In the O.J. Simpson trial, the defence famously quipped “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”, and they did. Generally, the more aesthetically pleasing a statement, the more likely we are to accept it.

If you’ve ever cried in despair at why the world can’t see your point of view, you might be making the mistake of trying to argue with facts.

As sad as it may sound, your communication will have better luck embracing some biases. Turn a truth into a cute saying, make it dangerous and urgent, and either get a crowd behind it, or find a way to communicate it without threatening existing beliefs.

We have a word for people who are experts at this questionable truth-repackaging: politicians. At least now you know why.

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