How do you determine what is true or false, fair or biased?
The question seems simple, but go ahead and try to answer it. People are quite good at expressing what they believe, and much less skilled at articulating why they believe it. Although we cry out for fact-checking the media, the president and other information sources, we rarely stop to fact-check ourselves. When was the last time you vetted your own beliefs and brought a critical eye to the logic that supports them? In this polarized time, the expression of unvetted beliefs is a major cause of our irreconcilable division.
In a recent exchange on my social media feed, two people from opposite sides of the political spectrum were in agreement that the only way to move beyond personal opinions in political discourse is to expose oneself to quality journalism from multiple sources. A third person contributed a graph from a recently published piece that plotted mainstream media outlets according to a measure of objectivity and nonpartisanship. A member of the initial conversation took issue with three of the outlets that fell in the region of objectivity, replying instantly: "Don't think I would put any of [those three] in there." Full stop.
What just happened? What began as a conversation about the need to transcend unvetted personal opinions was derailed when one person offered her unvetted (or at least unsupported) opinion about what was biased and what was fair. This bait-and-switch happens regularly in our political discourse because the things we believe seem (to us, anyway) self-evident. Psychologists have a name for this kind of thinking: naive realism. It's the idea that the world as I see it is the world as it actually is. But the world is not that way; the world as we see it is filtered through our beliefs, values and assumptions. If we don't put forth an effort to question the internal logic that gives life to the world as we see it, we will remain in a predicament where the things we judge as fair and true are nothing more than the things we prefer to believe.
How do we fact-check ourselves in political life? Decades of research in behavioral science points to several practices that bolster good judgment.
•First, we have to be willing to engage with both favorable and unfavorable information about the leaders and initiatives we both oppose and support. We must be willing to accept that inconvenient information can still be true, and to criticize "our side" for its shortcomings.
•Second, we have to stop playing the game of "they started it." The idea that your group's actions are justified because the other group has engaged in similar (or worse!) behavior is simply a way of excusing yourself from engaging with questions of fact and ethics altogether. In essence, everything is permissible if you apply this as your guiding standard of what is true and right.
•Third, we need to challenge ourselves to reflect on what, if anything, would convince us that we are wrong, and to ask whether that is a reasonable standard. Would we accept that standard if someone from the other side invoked it, for example?
We live in peculiar times, where clouds of doubt and skepticism surround a number of institutions (including the media and our political system) that at certain points in history were deemed trustworthy and benevolent. There is nothing wrong with skepticism, of course — provided we also bring it to bear on our own practices as consumers of information and arbiters of what is true.
Erik Helzer is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. His work focuses on organizational behavior, ethical leadership, and conflict management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.