Selective Attention, “Alternative Facts,” and the SEEKING System

Written by: Ralph Ellis


This post is a call for proposed explanations regarding an emotional riddle that becomes especially intense in an age of “alternative facts”: What determines the ultimate balance in the inner conflict between the truth-seeking motive on the one hand  (which emotion neuropsychologist Jaak Panksepp and others confirm as an innate SEEKING system – David Hume called it an innate “love of truth”), and on the other hand our obvious tendencies to systematically distort reality, resulting in selective inattention to obvious facts, in the service of self-deceptive misinterpretations of reality –  especially in the social and political realms. My question is not how such an inner conflict can occur, which is now widely studied, but rather what determines how the conflict is resolved – differently in different circumstances, even within the same individual psyche.

Panksepp shows extensive evidence for an endogenous, unconditioned SEEKING system of the emotional brain, which motivates the long controversial “exploratory drive.” Mother Nature, in engineering an organism whose main advantage is intelligence, needed for this truth-seeking function to be relatively independent of other reinforcement systems. But this SEEKING system inevitably comes into conflict with those competing motives and tendencies that can systematically distort reality. As is now well-established, we tend to focus on facts that make us feel better, and that fit our previous overall understanding of reality.  The “confirmation bias” is a classic spinoff of this more general “hermeneutical” or “interpretive” process, in which we both select and interpret new facts to make them fit an overall worldview.

Enter the science of “media manipulation,” especially given the pervasiveness of “social media,” and easy techniques of disinformation geometrically magnify this inner conflict. These techniques especially play on the confirmation bias, the need to buttress previous prejudices and preconceptions, the “anomie” of social alienation (enflaming Panksepp’s SEPARATION DISTRESS system), and authoritarian and conformist tendencies. The habitual Fox News viewer deliberately chooses to direct attention away from any other news source.

In the realm of moral psychology, this conflict leads to the paradox of the charitable terrorist: The same person can be extremely helpful and altruistic in some contexts, while in highly circumscribed contexts, becomes destructive, immoral, and even murderous, as in the classic examples of followers of Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan, and other brutally racist activities in the Southern U.S., South Africa, and many other venues for mass brutality or genocide around the world.

Phillip Luce in 1960 went undercover to study the notorious “White Citizens Councils” of the Southern U.S., finding that their members were often very altruistic and morally upstanding leaders of their local communities, generously donating time and money to charities. Similarly, Hannah Arendt was widely disparaged for pointing out that the administrators of Nazi death camps could be very nice fellows under normal circumstances. In both cases, we find ridiculously illogical and counter-empirical distortions of factual and moral belief, systematically applied to any facts that directly or indirectly challenge the pre-established overall belief system. Religion and even the theory of evolution must be distorted to make them fit a theory of racial superiority, for example. If ethnic or religious prejudice is then linked to subservience to a selected authority figure and all-or-nothing appeals to force, as in the “authoritarian personality,” then various kinds of elementary facts must be denied or reinterpreted to make them fit – while at the same time the sufferer from such systematic delusions remains an intelligent and competent rocket scientist or auto mechanic, and generally a morally upstanding family man. “Right wing authoritarianism” actually correlates positively with “agreeableness” on the Big Five personality inventory.

The tendency to distort reality has been well studied. The harder problem is not how such a tendency can operate, but rather how the conflict between this tendency and the equally innate “love of truth” is resolved, sometimes in favor of one tendency, and sometimes the other. What determines which side of this conflict wins out?

So I initiate this blog in search of proposed answers to this question, which includes the negativity bias hypothesis, the confirmation bias, authoritarianism, conformity theory, selective attention, the Ernest Becker-inspired “terror management theory,” narcissism theories, and other related strands in psychology, as well as the theories of “hermeneutics,” “post-structuralism,” “self-deception,” “anomie,” “existential anxiety,” and other movements in recent philosophy.

I think it is fairly easy to understand why such a conflict exists. What is more mysterious is what determines how it is resolved.

Take a look at Ellis’ latest publication The Moral Psychology of Internal Conflict, which explores ‘basic emotion theories’ combined with hermeneutic depth-psychology of the conflict between a basic truth-seeking exploratory drive and equally powerful confabulatory motivations.

Image: sweet-ice-cream-photography

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About the Author: Ralph Ellis

Ralph D. Ellis received his PhD at Duquesne University and a postdoctoral M.S. at Georgia State University. He has taught at Clark Atlanta University since 1985, and is interested in integrating the social sciences with the philosophy of mind. His various books in this area are listed at the Ralph D. Ellis page of Amazon.com. Ellis co-authored wi...

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