“We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” – Anaïs Nin, French-American essayist.
After coming across this quote three times over a five-day period last month, I stopped to reflect on its powerful message and relevancy for our times. Nin died more than 40 years ago; however, her quote is apt for our “post-truth” world, recognized in 2016 when Oxford Dictionaries named this adjective the international word of the year.
And while it would be ideal to prevent truth decay in totality, it’s more feasible to understand what truths are, how our brain responds to them, and then ensure we are clear about the difference between truth and facts.
It’s easy to use the two words “truth” and “facts” interchangeably, but there’s a big difference.
We check facts and seek truths.
“Facts” are indisputable things you can verify, such as a company’s stated earnings for the fourth quarter of 2018, the number of employees, the products and services offered, and related matters. Facts will stand as something that exists, happened, or occurred, until proven wrong.
By contrast, “truths” are one of the fuzziest five-letter words in our vocabulary subject to interpretation and often an appeal to emotions.
We humans cannot agree on universal truths because truths are not absolute. They are our version of our truth based on our personal life experiences and our perspectives. Just think of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, each individual perceiving different things based on what part of the elephant they touched. (For more about this see How to line up your facts and truths from my blog in 2017.)
Moreover, our versions of the truth can change over time because we’re changing.
For example, we’re always evolving based on our daily experiences. Whatever we do — from the slightly different to the totally new or from the mundane to the exciting — shapes how we see the world around us.
And as we change based on our experiences, our feelings and emotions change too, which further alters how we respond to things, what we believe, and what we remember.
Our memories are more fluid than we often realize, based on how our brain stores and retrieves memories.
As new research is showing, our memories can become more abstract and general after each retrieval, especially when we’re remembering objects. That’s because when we retrieve something from our memory, we think of the broad category first and then its specific attributes, which is the exact opposite of how our brain initially embedded the object in memory.
For example, if you’re remembering a pen you borrowed from a colleague that you need to find and return, you’ll first recall that it’s a writing instrument, a pen. You’ll then think of the details, such as a blue pen with a cap, imprinted with the name of a local dry cleaner, and blue ink.
This process is the reverse of what you do when you first see something. You notice the details first, and then broaden your perspective. You’ll note the object’s accepted name, such as the pen, what it does, and how you may use it.
This “backwards” process of memory – details first in, details last out – can cause out to lose the specifics. So, if we’re losing details over time, it’s no wonder how our version of the truth gets fuzzier as time goes by.
Our own vagueness can start contributing to different versions of our own truths as time goes on (For instance, “I endorse transparency in everything.” to “I endorse transparency when it won’t possibly hurt anyone.” to “I think transparency is a good idea, but I’m not sure we can practice it now.”) which makes it even more difficult to reconcile our truths with others’ truths.
When we have different perceptions of the truth – even if we’re not total conscious of the fluid nature of them, how can we even begin to think we’ll agree on what the truth means with others?
To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late American politician, sociologist, and diplomat, keep in mind that you and others are entitled to your own opinion – and your own truth (my add) – but not to your own facts.
What are the implications and what do you do?
- Use your words precisely. Make sure you refer to “facts” when you mean what’s real and verifiable. Use “truth” when you’re talking about what’s subjective, based on your opinions and beliefs.
- Agree on the facts. When talking with others, especially about controversial or challenging topics, extricate the facts from the beliefs, opinions, and truths. Then concur what the facts are.
- Accept that multiple truths can exist. Recognize that it’s very likely there will be different versions of the truth based on the same facts.
- Respect others and their truths. Other peoples’ truths, as well as their beliefs, opinions, and truths, have value too. Show your respect, which will help you build mutual trust.
- Figure out how to reconcile different truths based on the same facts. This is a huge issue for people who work together, especially when collaborating and making decisions to solve problems and address dilemmas. However, when you acknowledge the differences and get them out in the open, you’re able to deliberate, preferably without calling on a professional mediator to keep the peace.
Also, if your eyes start to glaze over or your stomach starts to hurt, pause, and critically think about what you’re hearing and reading. Don’t rush to judgment. You may even want to check in with someone who can serve as your sounding board, a role I often play as an executive coach.
In our fast-paced post-truth world, we’re often subject to emotional appeals that are light or absent of facts. When information and its evil twin misinformation can be a weapon rather than a tool to influence, you want to make sure you have your facts straight and your truths authentic — for you — to prevent even more truth decay.