Trumping Truth with Stories

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One of the few consistencies of a wild 2016 presidential campaign thus far is that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is willing to spin, obfuscate, exaggerate, misdirect, deflect, lie outright and double-down when called out for having done so. And, so far at least, it’s working. Truth – literal factual accuracy – just doesn’t seem to matter to him or to his supporters (who recently shouted “Sieg Heil” and “Light him on fire” at a black protestor in Las Vegas). If it feels right to them and fits into their favored narratives, from their perspective it is deemed true. What actually happened could not be less relevant.

This post-truth worldview isn’t a new-found tactic now that the Donald has entered the political world. For him, it has been a consistent way of life designed to benefit the Trump “brand.” He has thus routinely inflated his supposed net worth, often by billions of dollars, to make himself appear far more financially successful than he actually is. And he keeps claiming that his campaign is self-funded (because he’s really rich, donchaknow) when it demonstrably isn’t. But his Pinocchio-like behavior hasn’t been limited to things that, if believed, offer an obvious benefit to the Donald.

Back on a warm April evening in 1989, an investment banker at Salomon Brothers was raped and left for dead in New York City’s Central Park. The woman, as she later revealed in a book, was Trisha Meili, and she had been abused so brutally that when she was finally discovered, stripped and covered with mud, she had lost three-quarters of her blood and had already turned cold to the touch. Her beating was so severe that she remembered none of it.

Much of the rest of New York, seemingly, was perfectly clear about what had happened to her and who was to blame for it (as the headline shown here aptly demonstrates).Jogger 1 Then Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century.” As The New York Daily News reported, it was a “savage attack by roving gang.” The New York Times offered more detail: “The youths who raped and savagely beat a young investment banker as she jogged in Central Park Wednesday night were part of a loosely organized gang of 32 schoolboys whose random, motiveless assaults terrorized at least eight other people over nearly two hours, senior police investigators said yesterday.” Moreover, “she was raped by at least 4 of the 12 boys, Chief Colangelo said.” The five schoolboys who were eventually tried (only one as old as 16), the “Central Park Five,” were all black or Hispanic.

The next month, while Mayor Koch and Cardinal O’Connor cautioned against “rancor and hate,” Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in four New York newspapers (the version from The New York Daily News is shown here) Jogger 3to outline what he thought he knew about the case. The attackers were a “roving gang” of “park Marauders” and “crazed misfits.” He wanted the ”criminals of every age” involved ”to be afraid.” And the Donald knew precisely what was needed. “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” And, obviously (at least to Trump), the accused juveniles deserved the death penalty.

Despite the certainty of so many, including Trump, this widely accepted narrative was false. The wildly inconsistent confessions coerced out of the boys under the pressure of hours of police interrogations without being able to speak to their parents were false. And the inevitable convictions of the Central Park Five were also false.

It turns out that the rape of the Central Park jogger had been committed by a career criminal, serial rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes. The crime was consistent with his standard M.O. and his DNA was recovered from the victim (no DNA from any of the Five was recovered at the scene). After the convicted boys had completed serving their prison sentences of between six and 13 years, Reyes confessed and had his DNA tested. Over the objections of many police and the original lead prosecutor, the convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated. And, finally, in 2014, after a new mayor was elected, the City of New York paid over $40 million to the Central Park Five. True to form, Trump called the settlement a “disgrace.”

To be clear, as reported by the Times, on April 19, 1989 a mob of “teenagers invaded Central Park to assault, rob and harass joggers, bikers and others in a night that came to symbolize an era of rampant crime and racial tensions in the city.” The Central Park Five almost surely were among them and, as reported by a NYPD-appointed Armstrong Commission, may well have contributed to the attack on Ms. Meili. But, as the Commission conceded, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the Five were guilty of the crimes with which they were charged. In 1989, New York was a mostly white city and was exceedingly dangerous. Today, it is much less white and much, much safer. I suspect that many of the sorts of people who love Donald Trump would have predicted the former but not the latter.

For true believers, the sort of people to whom the Willie Horton ad was directed, the Central Park Five defendants weren’t very good kids who did a lot of very bad stuff on the night in question even if they weren’t guilty of the specific rape with which they were charged, and that Al Sharpton still had to pay demonstrators to protest. For others, police misconduct was evident from the start. As Harlem pastor Calvin Butts told The New York Times, “The first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped is round-up a bunch of black youths, and I think that’s what happened here.”

For those who were convinced of a certain sort of narrative about street crime and black teenagers in the city (like Donald Trump), the Central Park jogger case checked every box. They knew what happened…even though it didn’t. However, if you’re feeling a bit smug and self-satisfied about not being a Trumpkin, don’t think you’re somehow immune to this very type of problem.

By way of contrast to the cast of the Central Park Five, for those who believed a certain type of narrative about white privilege and preppy rich-kid high-handedness and misadventures at elite universities, the Duke lacrosse scandal was too good not to be true, facts be damned. It checked every box. Three wealthy Duke student-athletes, all of them white, were charged with raping a poor black stripper during a spring break party at an off-campus rental house. Even after the comprehensive dismantling of the accuser’s claims and after the prosecutor was disbarred for multiple acts of blatant misconduct, the underlying narrative remains intact because the false accusation “was a virus that landed in the most hospitable petri dish imaginable, a culture rife with unresolved racial, sexual and class tensions and grievances.” Besides, these weren’t very nice kids and they were taking advantage of a poor black woman. For example, “the players’ behavior at that party was apparently despicable. Among other things, they yelled racial epithets at the two strippers, both of whom were African-American. They acted like spoiled, arrogant rich kids” (more here). The facts may not have proved out, but they felt true and still do for many.

Thus, for true believers, the players weren’t very good guys despite their exoneration and the prosecutor was merely overzealous for a good cause. Civil libertarians and activists who typically oppose government overreach in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion bent over backwards to support a corrupt public official committed to withholding and hiding evidence and to railroading innocent defendants. Meanwhile, “law and order” conservatives were eager to denounce a system they had so often supported in the face of dreadful disconfirming evidence in the past when the conflicting narratives on offer demanded an either/or conclusion. But you didn’t see them taking up the struggle of others who may have been wrongly convicted by a corrupt prosecutor but who don’t have the money and the platform to fight back the way the Duke defendants did.

It is hardly a coincidence then that we think of stories as make-believe since stories powerfully create, focus and internalize our various intellectual and emotional commitments. Facts without interpretation are useless, after all, and stories provide our most significant interpretive framework. Due to our affinity for like-minded people, we seek out the people like us to provide echo chambers for our own claims, claims that perpetuate themselves every time we hear them reverberated back to us. We are neuro-chemically confirmation bias addicts. As such, we tend to reach our conclusions first. Only thereafter do we gather purported facts and, even then, see those facts in such a way as to support our pre-conceived conclusions. As I often say, we like to think of ourselves as judges, that we carefully gather and evaluate facts and data before coming to objective and well-founded conclusions. Instead, we cut straight to the chase. We are much more like lawyers, grasping for any scrap of purported evidence we can exploit to support our preconceived notions, narratives and allegiances. To make matters worse, the amount of effort required to refute nonsense is at least an order of magnitude larger than the effort needed to produce it. If it feels true, we’re exceedingly likely simply to go with it.

Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness” (“knowing with your heart” because it feels true, irrespective of facts) captures how, as cognitive psychologist Eryn Newman puts it, “smart, sophisticated people” can go astray on matters of fact. Newman’s research has shown that the less effort it takes to process a factual claim, the more accurate it seems. In one classic study, for example, people were more likely to think a statement was true when it was written in high color contrast as opposed to low contrast. Easy-to-pronounce ticker symbols (such as KAR) perform better in the markets than their difficult-to-pronounce counterparts (such as RDO) — even after just one day of trading. And, astonishingly, claims attributed to people with easy-to-pronounce names were deemed more credible than those attributed to people with difficult-to-pronounce names. As summarized by Slate: “When we fluidly and frictionlessly absorb a piece of information, one that perhaps snaps neatly onto our existing belief structures, we are filled with a sense of comfort, familiarity, and trust. The information strikes us as credible, and we are more likely to affirm it — whether or not we should.” In a kind of psychological immune response (the “backfire effect“), people routinely reject ideas they consider harmful, irrespective of truth. Indeed, one veteran TV news producer describes that industry’s model as “preconceived storytelling.”

We all respond to what moves us emotionally in the context of the narratives we believe and wish to be true. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that it is more effective to appeal to anti-vaxxers through their emotions, with stories and pictures of children sick with measles, the mumps or rubella — a reminder that subjective feelings are still trusted over scientific expertise. As George Johnson wrote in The New York Times: “Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality — the ‘dominant paradigm’ — on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version” – what Robin Ince calls a “reality tunnel.” Perhaps it should come to be known as a “Trump tunnel.”

When supporters are shown Trump’s most outrageous and cringe-worthy statements, the strength of their support actually increases (as readers of this site and those familiar with behavioral finance might expect). Peggy Noonan calls it the “power of human denial.” But be careful to avoid jumping to the conclusion that such behavior only happens to others. That conclusion fits with a delightful narrative emphasizing our careful consideration of facts, our considered adjudication of the evidence presented, and our good decision-making generally. But, as Mark Twain may have said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Faced with incongruous evidence, we tend to dismiss the evidence rather than the story. Or rather, we don’t dismiss it. We don’t even see it. Remember, nobody thinks they’re joining a cult.

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