Alternative Facts

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

A few weeks ago, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” during a Meet the Press interview to defend President Trump’s assertion that the attendance at his inauguration was “huge”, the “largest” ever etc. despite aerial pictures of the crowd size showing the contrary.

Several months ago and well before the election, The Economist published an article about dishonesty in politics entitled “Yes, I’d lie to you” (The Economist, September 10, 2016 at pp. 17-20.)  The article discussed the “post-truth” political discourse being espoused at the time.

Why does the public accept such “post-truth” politics or “alternative facts”, which serve solely and only to support their current reality?


… humans do not naturally seek truth. In fact, as plenty of research shows, they tend to avoid it. People instinctively accept information to which they are exposed and must work actively to resist believing falsehoods; they tend to think that familiar information is true; and they cherry-pick data to support their existing views. At the root of all these biases seems to be what Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-prizewinning psychologist and author of a bestselling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, calls “cognitive ease”: humans have a tendency to steer clear of facts that would force their brains to work harder. (Id. at 18.)

 In fact, confronting people with the correct facts, may, in fact, backfire and do nothing more than strengthen their beliefs in the “alternative facts.”  As the article explains:

In some cases, confronting people with correcting facts even strengthens their beliefs, a phenomenon Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, now of Dartmouth College and the University of Exeter, respectively, call the “backfire effect”. In a study in 2010 they randomly presented participants either with newspaper articles which supported widespread misconceptions about certain issues, such as the “fact” that America had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or articles including a correction. Subjects in both groups were then asked how strongly they agreed with the misperception that Saddam Hussein had such weapons immediately before the war, but was able to hide or destroy them before American forces arrived.

As might be expected, liberals who had seen the correction were more likely to disagree than liberals who had not seen the correction. But conservatives who had seen the correction were even more convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Further studies are needed, Mr. Nyhan and Mr. Reifler say, to see whether conservatives are indeed more prone to the backfire effect. (Id.)

 The above struck me, providing an “ah hah” moment because as a mediator attempting to settle lawsuits, I am often confronted with “alternative facts”. Each party sincerely believes that their version of the “truth” is correct, even when confronted with opposing “truths” or “facts”. Why? Because it is easier to allow our System 1 or automatic, intuitive thinking to govern our actions (i.e., cognitive ease) than to employ our System 2 and have to engage our deliberate analytical reasoning.  Thus, the more each party argues the “facts” that support their “truths”, the more their attempts will “backfire”; the other party will dig in her stiletto heels and resist accepting those “alternative facts”.

Why has the phenomenon of “alternative facts” succeeded? Because of “… a loss of trust in institutions that support the infrastructure and deep changes in the way knowledge of the world reaches the public.” (Id.)

This loss of trust is essentially a cognitive bias known as “reactive devaluation” or devaluing a proposal simply because it comes from an adversial source or origin. ( I have witnessed it in many a mediation: as I convey information from one side to the other, the other devalues it simply because it is coming from the adversary.

And, I have seen the second reason in play as well: social media and the internet play a key role in providing information by which to resolve disputes ( or to keep them going!)

So… while the news may contain much discussion of “alternative facts” and “post- truth” politics, the same mechanisms driving these phenomena are also driving everyday disputes and showing up in mediations. The world is indeed a small place in which everything is, in reality, local!

…. Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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