Tuesday, March 12, 2013

xgz: Why are We Suckers for Lies? A Psychological Explanation

The following post was published by xgz on his The Daily Kos blog on February 10, 2013:

The main part of this diary came from a comment by a reader Lang Lang on a book review of Ping Fu's Bend, not Break: A Life in Two Worlds
For more background, please read my previous diaries, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, and Part VII
Some may ask why such an obsession with someone's autobiography. Well, at the beginning I was only planning to write three diaries and that would be it. The accusation that critics of Ping Fu, including myself, were shills for the Chinese government, and we were running a coordinated smear campaign, made me continue. That the media could be so prejudiced against a minority group so easily, on no evidence whatsoever, is rather unusual. This angered me and made me decide to carry this series further, to fully expose all the lies of Ping Fu. The mistreatment from the media and fellow Americans just gave us more determination. It also tells us that the mainstream media and the mainstream culture are so susceptible to liars, that they often choose to believe the liars than people who expose them. 
Below is an analysis why Americans are more likely to believe liars. 
Update: Here is the newest example of media coverage (to be fair, it's British, but just as biased).

1, Association/reprehensive/stereotype tendency
Association is one of the most powerful psychological tendencies hardwired into human brains by genes. It is developed by brain to handle vast amount of information. Simply speaking it’s a shortcut to reduce information processing because our brains cannot process that much information we encounter every day. In our case, most of Americans have been conditioned by the media so that they think because communism/dictatorship=devil, China=communism/dictatorship so China=devil. So when they heard a bad story about Chinese government, they won’t bother to check how much truth the story holds because it’s must be true—it’s coming from China “the Devil”.
Anyone who dare to question the authenticity of such stories, therefore, must be trying to defend the bad guys. Since no one wants to defend the bad guys for no reason, these people must be paid shills for the Chinese government. This is how the American media and some of my fellow kossacks think. 
What they conveniently forget, is the fact that there are more than a dozen books that expose the evils of communism in China, the sufferings of the people during the Cultural Revolution, and the yearning for freedom of the Chinese people today. A good sampling of them is the following:
Standoff at Tiananmen by Eddie Cheng
Life and Death in Shanghai by Cheng Nien
China's Son: Growing Up in the Cultural Revolution by Da Chen
Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China's Cultural Revolution by Jicai Feng
These books are far more critical of the Cultural Revolution, or today's Chinese government, than Ping Fu's book, yet none of them received the type of one-star reviews that Ping Fu received. They all received mostly five-star reviews by the readers. 
Once people see these facts, they should realize how stupid it is to accuse the critics of Ping Fu to be tools of the Chinese government. 
2, Availability-misweighing
We know that people tend to believe things that are more familiar to them, or can be better retrieved from their brain memory or more available to them. So obviously the China pictured by the media is more familiar to most Americans and therefore they tend to believe the book because it matches the China the media has pictured for them. And they never bother to collect more and unfamiliar facts about China or in that matter all unfamiliar foreign countries.
Our fellow kossacks have long recognized how unreliable the media has been when it comes to domestic American politics. The other side, the conservatives, are even less trusting of the media. But when it comes to things about China, all of a sudden the media becomes so truthful and trustworthy, their message even overrides those who actually came from China. Why? 
3, Avoid doubts tendency
Believe it or not, our brains don’t like uncertainty. If given the chance, our brains will try to avoid doubts. If you heard the same kind of story but say it happened in Canada. You would doubt the truth of this story. But it happened in China, and you don’t know much about China except from the media. And if China is already associated with devil, than your brains would take the chance to avoid doubts and believe the story.
In other words, intellectual laziness.
4, Over optimism/wishful thinking tendency
We all know this saying “what a man wishes, that also will he believe”. We all want to believe great stories (or wish great story to be true, just like we wish we could win lottery). Ping’s story is a great one: not only had she survived one of the most brutal systems but also prospered after she came to America, fulfilled her American dream. Of course everybody wants to believe it. Who doesn’t?
Ping Fu's story is too close to a Hollywood plot: A tranquil, comfortable life interrupted by a revolution, followed by great sufferings, then redemption through determination and some good luck. One could not have written a better script for a movie. A naive reader has an urge to believe that it is true, and would then willingly ignore all evidence to the contrary.
5, Authority
Ping’s book got great reviews from some famous critics, so it must be true. She was also interviewed by the media, so it must be a true story. Is it really?
Now we know what famous critics do - they never look at a book critically, not when it is about something they know very little about.
6, Social proof
We all know “monkey see monkey do”. Everybody likes Ping’s book, it must be good and true. Especially those Authorities like it. Authority compounding with Social proof sometimes could be very powerful.
It tells us how shallow ourselves really are. 
Even after we know that the story is a lie, there are still people defending and justfying it. Why? See below:
7, Incentive-caused bias
Their logic goes like this: China is devil anyway, so what’s wrong with fighting against it; we should use all tools we have, even lies. Maybe some people can understand this logic but it has nothing to do with truth and don’t forget somebody is making a fortune out of a lie. Fighting devil and making money at the same time, what a great story. Is it about money or devil? 
8, Self-serving
I am better than you guys so my opinions are better than you guys so I can’t be wrong so you are wrong. 
9, Denial
It looks very stupid if one found his/her previous statements are wrong especially when publicly stated. It’s painful to admit that you are wrong so the alternative is to keep your head in the sand. 
10, Commitment and consistency
I have made a public statement about the book, so I have to be consistent with my opinion. I will ignore all unfavorable evidence and find all favorable evidence to support my opinion/theory. 
So in summary, all these psychological tendencies work together in the same direction to mislead educated Americans to believe a lie. Two star for a great lie.
I still have confidence in my fellow Americans. We have a free press, although not a very responsible one. Our voice is still here, although not many are listening. Hopefully, people will start to think, and recognize the liar's lies. 
Let me end with the following plea. We have democracy and freedom of speech here, but not in China. Pro-democracy people in China look to the US as their inspiration and example. The Ping Fu affair has given them a very bad example. It is much more difficult to explain to my Chinese friends what good a free press does, if a free press can be bought. I hope that my persistence here, and the persistence of other Chinese Americans on Amazon and other English forums, will ultimately be able to bring the mainstream media to their senses, and start to cover this story fairly and objectively. Then I can hold up this as a great example why we need a free press, and how it can successfully expose liars.

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