'Be careful what you wish for.' (Aesop)
‘People believe what they want to believe’ (Julius Caesar). Did Julius Caesar really say that? Your instinctive response will depend, in part, on what version of events you want to be true. If you hope he did, you are more likely to say yes. If not, then no. Take any front-page issue in the media and notice how quickly people form a strong opinion about it, especially on social media – often with wild passion and conviction yet only rarely with substantial evidence to support it.
Psychologist Art Markman PhD noticed that: ‘People are biased to interpret the evidence in ways that are consistent with their desires. That means that people may ultimately come to believe that the weight of evidence supports the position that they already wanted to believe was true. And they will believe this without recognizing that their own desires influenced the evaluation of the evidence.’ (Psychology Today, 2011)
In short, we think wishfully, and we don’t know it. To varying degrees, we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear, and we filter, interpret and distort every issue, encounter or experience. It’s a swirling mix of subconscious desire, unconscious bias and emotional reasoning that influences what we notice, and don’t, and what sense we make of it. It shapes what we believe is real or unreal, true or untrue. It impacts on the conclusions we draw and the stances we take.
If challenged on the implicit assumptions we are making and projecting outwards onto the world, our defensive reactions can be like putting our hands over our eyes or our fingers in our ears and singing, ‘La, la, la’ to blank out or drown out anything that may disturb us. We want to avoid the anxiety created by complexity or dissonance. The result can be to live in a state of psychological and cultural felt-safety, yet that may be grounded in delusion. So, some questions:
Why might I want this version of events to be true? What want or need would it satisfy for me if it were true? How would this being true serve an issue, a cause or a relationship that matters to me? What deeper wants or needs does this tap into; e.g. ‘I want things to be simpler’, or ‘... to be fairer’, or '... to feel safer.' What, in my personal, relational or cultural experience, is driving me to take this stance? What inconvenient facts am I ignoring in order to sustain my ‘truth’?
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