Facts or Feelings?: The Peril and Promise of Intuitive Communication in an Era of Misinformation

Facts or Feelings?: The Peril and Promise of Intuitive Communication in an Era of Misinformation

Jacob William Justice (The University of Mississippi, USA)
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7439-3.ch012
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Abstract

The social intuitionist model has significant implications for the study of communication. Specifically, this chapter argues that the social intuitionist model reveals the limitations of rational argument and illustrates factors contributing to misinformation. This argument is developed through a series of four observations. First, communicators have attempted to combat misinformation through rational argument. Second, centuries of interdisciplinary insights revealing the intuitive nature of human decision-making cast doubt on strategies that appeal to audiences primarily through facts and reason. Third, application of the social intuitionist model to contemporary American politics can help explain several puzzling dynamics, including the appeal of Donald Trump and the persistence of misinformation. Fourth, communication scholarship can be improved through greater recognition of the influence of intuition upon decision-making. This chapter concludes by proposing ways that emotional narratives can be used to bridge gaps between public opinion and expert consensus.
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Introduction

A common refrain in heated online political arguments is the phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings.” According to this meme, reason and emotion are part of a binary, with feelings characterized as obstacles to sound reasoning. Those who circulate this catchphrase do so to characterize their preferred political opinions as rooted in logic and evidence while dismissing opposing viewpoints as irrational or superstitious. Although this snarky put-down is primarily utilized by conservatives, a similar sentiment is often espoused by liberals. Some Democrats have presented “fact-checking” and “challenging right-wing misinformation” as the “key to beating back Republican dominance” (Savage, 2020, para. 8). According to this logic, “the person who has the truth on their side will eventually win the day” (Cloud, 2018, p. 1).

Although the “facts don’t care about your feelings” mentality is present on both sides of the political spectrum, as liberals and conservatives alike wrap themselves in the mantle of rationality, the social intuitionist model cautions that facts and feelings are hard to disentangle. In many cases, feelings prove indifferent to facts. The social intuitionist model is derived from moral psychology and “indicates that human cognition involves a priori automatic and reflexive moral responses that impact post hoc deliberative and reflective moral reasoning” (Zollo, 2020, p. 2). The model implies that individuals form and defend political opinions not necessarily based on the facticity or truth of these positions, but because these positions conform to their underlying worldview and resonate with them emotionally. Although democratic ideals beseech citizens to vote by rationally weighing candidate qualifications and policy positions using a cost-benefit analysis, psychologists have shown that emotions often triumph over reason in the political arena (Fitzduff, 2017, p. 6). For this reason, the social intuitionist model has significant implications for the study of communication. Specifically, this chapter argues that the social intuitionist model reveals the limitations of rational argument and illustrates factors contributing to misinformation.

The social intuitionist model challenges the notion that bombarding the opposition with facts is the optimal route to persuasion and “draws on dual-process theories” that differentiate between intuitive/emotive and deliberative/rational systems of cognition (Haidt, 2002, p. 55; Thaler & Sunstein, 2008, p. 19; Zollo, 2020, p. 5). Dual-processing theories explain human decision-making as guided by “two neural systems that operate according to different principles and often clash with one another” (Lobel & Loewenstein, 2005, p. 1046). Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (2011), for example, explains human decision-making using two systems: System 1, which is quick and intuitive, and System 2, which undertakes effortful and complex mental calculations (pp. 20–21). American political culture celebrates slow, deliberative thinking grounded in facts and evidence as essential to the exercise of democracy. The social intuitionist model, however, highlights that emotions, impulses, and unconscious intuitions are powerful influences on the reasoning process. According to this perspective, emotion and reason are not binary opposites but fundamentally interrelated influences on decision-making. These features of human decision-making complicate efforts to persuade partisans by appealing to expert consensus and facts, as individuals are often motivated reasoners adept at dismissing or rationalizing evidence that contradicts pre-existing beliefs (Strickland, Taber, & Lodge, 2011). Through this process of “motivated reasoning” individuals rationalize away or ignore information that challenges their beliefs by conforming “assessments of information to some goal or end extrinsic to accuracy” (Kahan, 2013, p. 408).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Values: Culturally or socially constructed notions of what is desirable or undesirable, right or wrong, or good or bad.

Misinformation: Incorrect or inaccurate information that may be designed intentionally to deceive audiences.

Rationalization: A self-defensive mode of reasoning that involves justifying a controversial or problematic behavior or feeling with a logical or rational explanation, even if the behavior or feeling in question is not rational or logical in nature.

Affect: A preconscious feeling usually involving bodily sensation.

Fact-Check: A process, often undertaken by journalists, to verify factual information and thereby encourage accurate reporting while discouraging circulation of falsehoods.

Rational Argument: Communication in which claims are supported using evidence and reasoning.

Narrative: A mode of communication involving symbolic actions, such as words or deeds, that are sequentially arranged to convey meaning for individuals and communities.

Emotion: A conscious reaction usually directed at an object that results from a symbolic attempt to capture affect.

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