Posts Tagged ‘Fight-or-flight response’

Why Facts Don’t Matter

August 15, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of a column written by David Ignatius in the 5 August edition of the Washington Post.  Ignatius began his column by asking, “How did Donald Trump win the Republican nomination despite clear evidence that he had misrepresented or falsified key issues throughout his campaign?”  Also read or reread the healthy memory blog posts “Donald Trump is Bending Reality to Get Into the American Psyche” and “Trick or Tweet or Both?  How Social Media is Messing Up Politics.”  Trump makes outrageous statements, contradicts himself, and betrays a woeful ignorance about government and international relations, and makes claims that he is going to fix problems without providing any plans as to how he is going to fix them.  Nevertheless, people say that they are going to vote for him.  When pressed they say that are unhappy with current politics and the country is going in the wrong direction.  To this HM asks, so the bridge is crowded and slow moving, does that mean you are going to jump off the bridge, even though you don’t know that you’ll survive the jump or that you might be eaten by the crocodiles in the water?

There have been prior posts about the confirmation bias and the backfire effect.  The confirmation bias refers to our bias to believe statements or facts that are in consonance with our beliefs.  The backfire effect refers to the effect when efforts to correct misinformation actually strengthen beliefs in the misinformation.  Ignatius is referencing an article by Christopher Graves in the February 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review.  Research by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifer showed the persistence of the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in 2005 and 2006 after the United States had publicly admitted that they didn’t exist.  They concluded “The results show that direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically founded factual belief.

Graves also examined how attempts of debunk myths can reinforce them, simply by repeating the untruth.  This study in the Journal of Consumer Research is titled “How Warnings About False Claims Become Recommendations.  It seems that people remember the assertion and forget whether it’s a lie.  The authors wrote, “The more often older adults were told that a given claim was false, the more likely they were to accept it as true after several days have passed.”

Graves noted that when critics challenge false assertions, say, Trump’s claim that thousands of Muslims cheered in New Jersey when the twin towers fell—their refutations can threaten people rather than convince them. And when people feel threatened, they round up their wagons and defend their beliefs.  Ego involvement generates large mental efforts to defend their erroneous beliefs.    Not only does the Big Lie Work, but small lies also work

Social scientists understand  why the buttons that Trump’s campaign pushes are so effective.  “When the GOP nominee paints a dark picture of a violent, frightening American, he triggers the “fight or flight’ response that is hard-wired in or brains.  For the body politic, it can produce a kind of panic attack.

So attempts to correct misinformation can backfire and have the opposite effect.  So what can be done?  Some possible approaches will be found in the next HM post.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


October 19, 2011

There are many benefits that accrue to those who are optimistic.1 Optimists recover better from medical procedures, and have healthier immune systems. They live longer both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.2

It is common knowledge that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. The belief that we are at risk triggers physiological pathways such as the “flight or fight” response by the sympathetic nervous system. Although these have evolved to protect us from danger, when they are switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

The new perspective on optimism is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have unique positive effects. Feeling safe and secure and believing things will turn out fine seems to help the body maintain and repair itself. A review of recent studies concluded that the health benefits of positive thinking happen independently of the harm caused by negative states such as pessimism or stress, and are roughly comparable in magnitude.3

It is thought that optimism reduces stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It might also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system governs the “rest and digest” response—the counterpart to the “fight or flight” response.

Even if you are not an optimist, you can train yourself to think more positively, and it seems that the more stressed or pessimistic you are to begin with, the better it works. David Cresswell of the Carnegie Mellon University asked students facing exams to write short essays on times when they had displayed qualities that were important to them. The aim was to boost their sense of self-worth. Compared to the control group, these self-affirmed students had lower levels of adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones in their urine on exam day. The effect was greatest for those students who had been most worried about their exam results.4

Tali Sharot has written an interesting book claiming that we have an optimism bias because it provided us with an evolutionary advantage.5 When most people are asked what is going to transpire in the upcoming month, they tend to give an overly optimistic account. Similarly, when asked to provide an estimate of their longevity or of their having certain diseases, they also tend to provide overly optimistic accounts. The people who are able to provide fairly accurate estimates for these same questions tend to be those who are clinically diagnosed as being mildly depressed. This phenomenon is called depressive realism.6 So the idea is that truly accurate realism can be depressive. A species of mildly depressed individuals probably could not have evolved.

To conclude, although optimism can be good, there is also the possibility of too much of a good thing. See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Can Optimism Be Bad?”

1Much of this post is based on an article, Think Positive, by Jo Marchant in the New Scientist, 27 August 2011, p. 34.

2Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39, p.34.

3Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, p.741.

4Health Psychology, 28, p.554.

5Sharot, T. (2011). The Optimistm Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain., New York: Pantheon Books.

6Alloy, L.B., & Abramson.  (1979) Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students:   Sader but wiser.?  Journal of Experimental Psychology:  General, 108, 441-485.



© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.