Why There Are Such Big Differences in What We View as “The Truth”

by | Nov 18, 2020

It’s just a flesh wound!

Some People Dying of Covid Still Think It’s A Hoax

I’ve read of health care workers relating that some of their patients still believe that COVID is a hoax even though they are sick and in the ICU with COVID. A good example is the below quote from a nurse reported in the Washington Post:

“Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real,’” Doering said, adding that some patients prefer to believe that they have pneumonia or other diseases rather than covid-19, despite seeing their positive test results.

This is just one example of the parallel realities in which we seem to be living as a country — there are many others. Why does this happen? How is it that large swaths of the country can have their own “truth?”

Your Social Group Determines Your “Truth”

A primary reason for human survival success is our ability to work in groups. As such, we’ve evolved as a species to be social and to gravitate towards groups. Moreover, in times of uncertainty we desire to associate with groups, especially ones that share our beliefs.

An aspect of groups is that what we view as being true is defined by our social group. Here’s what sociologist and expert on groups Arie Kruglanski has to say about groups and truth:

“An opinion, a belief, an attitude is perceived as ‘correct,’ ‘valid,’ and ‘proper’ to the extent that it is anchored in a group of people with similar beliefs, opinions, and attitudes. Individuals’ understandings of the world are held as true to the extent that they can be affirmed by some social group.”

This is a fascinating concept and explains why we believe what we believe and why facts to the contrary of group beliefs don’t sway people.

Social Pressure Bends Our Views of Reality

In 1951 Solomon Asch performed a fascinating experiment that captured how social pressure can shape our views of reality. In the study a participant was put in a room with seven “stooges” – actors who agreed in advance what their response was going to be to the following question, “which line, A, B, or C, is most like the Target Line? Here’s the lines they were shown:

Asch experiment target line and three comparison lines

The seven stooges gave their answer first and the participant went last. Each of the stooges responded with “line A.” When it was time for the participant to respond, even though the correct answer is obviously “C”, 75% of the participants conformed during the trials and gave the incorrect answer that the rest of the group gave.

Upon being interviewed, most of the the participants who conformed to the group and gave the incorrect answer said that they didn’t really believe that line A was the correct answer but they gave that answer because they were worried about being ridiculed or called peculiar. They wanted to be a part of the group — even though the group was just seven strangers.

The point is that we strongly desire to be members of groups. And those groups define what our reality is and what we believe. It explains how and why different religions believe wholly different things with complete certainty. It explains why reality, truth and facts are different for people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. It is the reason that explaining the basis for your truth doesn’t sway a person from a different group: they are wired to believe what their group believes.

Stories, Myths, and Elephants

Our ability to tell stories and believe myths confers a huge evolutionary advantage. As discussed in a recent IFOD on Storytelling, our ability to believe in myths like gods and countries cements our groups and allows us to work together in large groups. Our shared beliefs as a country in “freedom” and “democracy” and the like allows hundreds of millions of us to work together with shared purposes and goals. Many of us are willing to die for these shared beliefs.

Getting someone to change their mind isn’t a matter of reasoning with them. As discussed in the IFOD Why Does the Other Side Seem So Horrible, our minds are divided “like a rider on an elephant” and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. In this model, the elephant represents our emotions and intuition and the rider is our strategic reasoning. This metaphor illustrates the concept that our beliefs and views of the world are largely subconscious and deeply ingrained. Our intuition and emotions can be thought of as our elephant. Our reasoning serves our intuition, meaning that our conscious, reasoning mind uses its resources and energy to justify and explain why we believe what we believe. The rider has little or no control over the elephant. That means that if we talk to the rider — the reasoning part of a person’s brain — we’ll have no success.

Continuing with the metaphor — our elephant heads in the direction that other elephants from our group heads. Our elephant only changes course as the elephant herd changes course.

Realize that this phenomenon of truth being defined by groups doesn’t just apply to other people — it applies to you as well. Your elephant is walking along in the herd of elephants of your group. What you believe isn’t necessarily based on objective truth or fact. You believe what the groups you associate with believe. And some of those things aren’t objectively true. Maybe spend some time and think about what those things might be.


  1. Pretty broad blanket you cast John. I can argue for and against, for example, Obamacare. I’ve decided which side of the discussion is best for me. Your intuition is largely accurate but a disclaimer is warranted so old buddies like me don’t feel grouped into the box you speak of.
    Further I find it ironic you quote the Washington Post and then follow on using an Elephant as your example of leading people down a common path. Why not chose a donkey? Freudian slip or clever poke at the GOP?
    Hope you are well my old friend.
    A scotch is in order next time I’m in St. Louis.

  2. Chilling but true


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