Fear of Facts Endangers the Nation

What may be hurting our country more than anything is a thick-skulled mentality that refuses to face the facts. Many of us are more afraid of facts than of terrorists.

Sad to say, people don’t necessarily change their minds when their erroneous assumptions are corrected. A University of Michigan study found that misinformed people, particularly those loyal to their politics, rarely change their minds when exposed to corrected facts in news stories. Instead, they often become even more strongly set in their beliefs.

This restriction of intelligence may be America’s most baffling and self-destructive problem. The nation’s complex challenges won’t get solved by all the dead brains cells insisting that President Obama is foreign-born, death-panels are coming, and gun controls destroy liberty.

Why are some of us so obtuse? We tend to create an identity—our sense of ourselves as individuals and as a group or nationality—that is based on certain beliefs. Those beliefs can be religious, secular, personal, cultural, and social. Beliefs are not just mental deductions: They carry a lot of emotional baggage.

Many of us experience anxious, inner turmoil when our beliefs are directly challenged by opposing ideas and beliefs (or, even more distressing, by facts). The emotional impact might be, “Who am I, who will I be, without my beliefs?”

Some individuals can feel a frightening cognitive dissonance, like a lost soul in existential panic, when confronted with facts that do not correspond with their belief system. To avoid this fear, they refuse unconsciously to assimilate the facts into their intelligence.

This unconscious decision to be stubbornly obtuse is a simple mental trick facilitated by inner fear. Preserving the inner status quo trumps facing the emotional challenge of dealing with reality.

This insecure individual can feel that, “My beliefs are protecting me from all those so-called facts that are trying to undermine me and cause self-doubt. I’ve figured out my beliefs for myself, and nobody else’s facts are going to take them away.”

The stronger we are emotionally and the healthier we are psychologically, the less likely we are to base our sense of self on a set of beliefs. Instead, we “know” ourselves and are comfortable with ourselves through human virtues such as integrity, honesty, empathy, courage, and a passion for truth. These virtues are not beliefs we hold but assets we embody.

Typically, our intelligence is impeded or clouded over by psychological issues such as low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Unfortunately, psychological problems appear to be on the rise. The New York Times reported last month that the emotional health of college freshmen “has declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago.”

Another survey reported that the U.S. mental illness disability rate doubled from one in every 184 Americans in 1987 to one in every 76 by 2007. Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (Crown Publishers, 2010), attributes this rise to the widespread use of antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs.

In an interview, Whitaker said, “. . . the literature is remarkably consistent in the story it tells. Although psychiatric medications may be effective over the short term, they increase the likelihood that a person will become chronically ill over the long term.”

In my opinion, a great many of us, whether we’re taking these medications or not, are having our intelligence undermined by unresolved issues and conflicts in our psyche. This would be particularly true for those of us who are failing at careers, relationships, and self-regulation, or who are apathetic, cynical, angry, or unduly self-centered.

Psychoanalysis has an explanation for why mental or emotional problems impede our intelligence. An unconscious process of repression is active in our psyche, covering up old material from our past that is painful, shameful, and guilt-laden. Psychic energy, which ideally is used productively and creatively, is wasted in this process of repression.

Psychic energy is also wasted in inner defensiveness. The energy is dissipated fending off the inner critic or superego. We waste this energy producing inner defenses that protect a delicate, idealized self-image or ego. Often the “logic” used in our defenses is completely irrational. All that matters is that the defense works as a cover-up. In this process, the individual sacrifices truth and reality to preserve the inner status quo. Facts or truth are not allowed to intrude into one’s consciousness.

For example, greed is an unpleasant or negative feeling that appears to be Wall Street’s driving force. If some greedy traders on Wall Street were to track this greed back to its source, they would discover a dark emptiness within their psyche, where they are entangled in feelings of loss, deprivation, not getting, missing out, helplessness, having no value, and fear of death. They are pawns of these largely unconscious negative feelings, and their compulsive striving for money serves as a defense or cover-up. Their main defense involves embellishing their self-image. The defense convinces them that they are superior individuals, “masters of the universe” whose superiority is evident through all the money they make and the impact on the world of their decisions.

How many of these traders are interested in facts or truth about themselves? Any attempt to correct their erroneous assumptions about the nature of reality, in particular their human nature, would be met with hostility by many if not most of them.

Those who care about deeper truth look inward to see where we might be fooling ourselves. One way to acquire insight is to monitor or track one’s own negative feelings. Identify your trigger points, your emotional weaknesses. Learn to take “ownership” or to become responsible for those feelings. No more blaming others. Don’t blame yourself either. This is human nature in action, the great struggle we all have with the dark side.

We have only a specific amount of psychic energy at our disposal. The more we waste in inner conflict and the cover up of our dark side, the less intelligence we’ll have for the challenge of saving America.