Reasoning and the outrageous — pay attention

If someone made an outrageous accusation about you, what would you do?

I know what I would do, because I’ve done it.

A few years after 9/11, I renewed my passport so I could go to my then–brother-in-law’s wedding in the Cayman Islands. Five days in the sun and sea in the late winter. It was lovely.

Back in the old U.S. of A., when I presented my new passport (just one outgoing stamp!) to the Customs Agent, he confiscated it and sent me scurrying to a holding room. Needless to say, this concerned me.

I sat in a little room for about a half an hour, crammed in with an array of mostly darker-skinned people, with and without children, with and without possessions piled high around them. I had all of my bags with me, too. (And, dear Reader, I do not travel light.)

Two uniformed men sat at a high desk on one side of the room. Eventually, one of them called my name. I struggled to corral my stuff so I could get to the desk. I’d only made it halfway across the room when he asked me, “Have you ever been in trouble with the law?”

I was completely gobsmacked. The words positively boomed out of my mouth: “GOOD GOD, OF COURSE NOT!” The roomful of nervous detainees laughed out loud. One of the uniforms may have laughed too. And just like that, I was free to go.

Outrageous accusations, reasoned responses

I did not watch yesterday’s news conference live; I figured I could get all I needed from the recaps. And then my social media feeds filled up with the word “germaphobe.”

I couldn’t have done this thing, the man said, because I am a germaphobe.

A curious argument. Made even more curious as I saw people begin to debate whether or not the substance in question actually contains germs. Of course, that completely misses the point.

The point is, he had been accused of committing an outrageous act. But did he respond with outrage? Did his voice boom out across the room, as mine did, “GOOD GOD, OF COURSE NOT!”

No. Instead, he tried to reason. And while I know the allegation is still not verified despite the best attempts of journalists and the intelligence community, the fact that he resorted to reason rather than outrage tells me all I need to know.

We’re hard-wired to believe

A while back I read Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion to learn more about marketing. But Cialdini made some points worth considering in this situation:

“…a communicator who ushers audience members’ attention to selected facets of a message reaps a significant persuasive advantage: recipients’ receptivity to considering those facets prior to actually considering them.”

outrageous lies can persuade us at any moment

The tagline of Cialdini’s invaluable book

In other words, the “look over here!” of “I’m a germaphobe” does more than distract us from the more important point—the alleged behavior. What Cialdini calls “channeled attention” can “make recipients more open to a message pre-suasively, before they process it.”

The words are barely out of the liar’s mouth before some part of our brain starts thinking, Hmm. He may have a point there. Just because he spoke, not because of what he said. This makes gaslighting a breeze.

Distractability is hard-wired into us. Back in the Jurassic, our ancestors probably needed to make decisions before they had fully processed information. Stop to think about whether the dinosaur chasing you has already eaten lunch and you’d likely be the main course.

Today, when would-be predators wear suits and (made in China) ties, we need to retrain our brains to reflect more.

In a time when too many political leaders manipulate the truth while insisting that they are the only honest actors around, we need to pay attention not just to what gets said but to what it actually means and what it might be distracting us from.  Social media exacerbates the problem because journalists need to process information instantaneously, with no time to ponder or synthesize it.

When outrageous things occur—and it seems safe to assume we’ll see more of them—listen for outrage in response. If you don’t hear it, press for it. Because it’s a sign we’re in trouble, my friends.

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