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The Polarization of Truth


Explanations > Decisions > The Polarization of Truth

The need for confidence | The impossibility of certainty | The need to be right | The distortion of perception |

The polarization of truth | So what


What we decide is true and what is actually true can be very different. This is typically driven more by our deeper needs for comfort than our higher needs for truth.

The need for confidence

We all like to be sure. To know that something will happens beyond doubt. When make decisions, we like to be confident about what we have decided.

When we are confident, we can explain and persuade in ways that others will also share our confidence. We can predict what will happen in world around us and so gain a more comfortable sense of control.

The impossibility of certainty

The problem with wanting to be confident about facts and decisions is that nothing is truly certain. When people assert things to us, we do know how rigorous they have been in coming to their conclusions. When we are presented with data, we may challenge its veracity.

Even when we look at the sun, we do not know 100% that it is out there in the middle of our solar system. The sun we see is the light from eight minutes ago. And where exactly is the middle of the solar system?

The need to be right

In our arguments and discussions with other people we have a need to be right, even when we know we are wrong. This is partly driven by our need for a sense of identity, in which being right is being whole and coherent. If we

The need to be right is also strongly related to the need for status and esteem. If we are wrong, then we are inferior to others and are placed below them in the social hierarchy. If we are right, then we are superior and can feel the pride of our exalted position.

The distortion of perception

This need for certainty and being right leads us to look for black and white choices. Either something is true or it is not. Either we can do something or we cannot. Either something is right or it is wrong. Yet the reality is that the answer to many questions is 'perhaps'.

We have to live, choose and act in a world of uncertainty, making decisions that may or may not work. To become more comfortable, we bend reality, tweaking it in our direction, changing our perceptions to suit our purpose. We see what we want to see. We interpret things though the lens of our needs.

This is sometimes done consciously, yet it is so built into the way we think we often do not realize what is going on in our heads. Even at the deeper levels, our minds will distort what we perceive in order to help make sense of the world. We literally do not see or hear things that do not fit with our expectations.

Our perceptions are hence driven more by fear and hope than by truth.

The polarization of truth

All this leads us to exaggerations that polarize, taking things towards extremes. To cope with discomfort we bend probabilities to the extreme, assuming things are 0% or 100% true and deciding based on this. We choose to believe things we want are wholly true and then ignore things that make us uncomfortable.

In arguments, we seek to take positions where we can differentiate ourselves from others. We polarize here too, making our statements more extreme in the opposite direction to others, who tend to do the same. We then sit in our distant and respective castles, shooting exaggerated cannonballs at the other person, trying to destroy their argument through extreme assertions.

Polarization is often cultural. Everyday social conversations may well use superlatives to the point where non-exaggeration is considered odd. When we are not opposing others, it is normal to flatter other people, over-praising their strengths and not mentioning their weaknesses. In such ways we collaborate to avoid the discomfort of reality.

So what?

When arguing, it is commonly accepted that people will exaggerate and polarize and not be challenged. This means you can do it too, or you can choose to challenge the polarizations of others.

See also

Uncertainty principle, Amplification principle


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