Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Red ‘Facts,’ Blue ‘Facts’: The Psychology of Truthiness

• August 28, 2012 • 6:00 AM

New research finds our moral convictions strongly influence what facts we choose to believe regarding a given issue.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous assertion that “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts” seems increasingly quaint today, at a time when one person’s self-evident truth is dismissed by another as fabrication or myth.

New research provides a sobering reason why we can’t even agree on what we’re arguing about: We align our perception of reality to comfortably coexist with our moral convictions.

“In the realm of moral reasoning, at least, a clean separation of opinion and fact may be difficult to achieve,” write psychologists Brittany Liu and Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine. “Our data consistently show that evaluations of an act’s inherent morality are strongly associated with factual beliefs about both its positive and negative consequences.”

The researchers illustrate this point with three experiments, which they describe in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

One study featured 1,567 people who visited psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s website yourmorals.org. Participants were presented with four moral issues in random order—two generally seen as acceptable by conservatives (capital punishment, and forceful interrogation of suspected terrorists), and two usually seen as acceptable by liberals (embryonic stem cell research, and promoting condom use as part of sex education).

For each issue, participants rated, on a one-to–seven scale, the extent to which they considered the practice morally wrong, and considered it wrong even if it was proven to effectively achieve its aims. Then they answered a series of questions regarding the likely costs and benefits of each course of action.

The results: “The more participants believed that the action was immoral even if it had beneficial consequences, the less they believed it would actually produce those consequences, and the more they believed it would have undesirable costs.”

For example, the researchers write, “The more participants endorsed the belief that condom education was morally wrong even if it prevented pregnancy and STDs, the less they believed that condoms were effective at preventing these problems, and the more they believed that promoting condom use encouraged teenagers to have sex.”

Now, some people do argue that an action such as waterboarding is wrong and should be outlawed, even if national security suffers. But the researchers say that such highly principled stances are rare, largely because they conflict with an inherent tendency to favor practices that offer significant benefits at low (personal) costs.

“Our research suggests that people resolve such dilemmas by bringing cost-benefit beliefs into line with moral evaluations,” they conclude, “such that the right course of action morally becomes the right course of action practically as well.”

Liu and Ditto concede this does not bode well for political compromise, at least on morally charged issues. They call it “particularly disheartening” that people with “strong moral convictions and high opinions of how informed they are”—which is to say, members of the political and media elite—are more likely to cite “facts” to support their moral positions. In this way, misinformation gets spread widely, and the actual truth becomes less and less clear.

These findings help us understand how certain anti-abortion absolutists can believe that women can’t get pregnant via rape. If you consider both abortion and forcing a woman to carry a rapist’s child to be morally unacceptable, the easiest way out of that dilemma may be to will yourself to believe the latter is impossible.

If Liu and Ditto are right, this is merely an extreme example of a depressingly common phenomenon. We may not be entitled to our own facts, but that doesn’t stop us from claiming them.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.