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How do we know what to believe these days?

Most people aren't sure what to believe in the media these days. What is fake news to one person is confirmation to another person that what he or she thinks about the subject is correct.

Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D.
Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D., FarmersÕ Forum columnist

Most people aren't sure what to believe in the media these days. What is fake news to one person is confirmation to another person that what he or she thinks about the subject is correct.

How do people arrive at very different conclusions from the same information? Let's take a look at what behavioral scientists have to say about this phenomenon.

Psychologists, neurologists and other behavioral scientists agree that our sensory organs, such as our eyes, auditory receptors, taste buds and olfactory receptors detect the information they were designed to perceive to the extent that these sensory systems function properly. How our brains interpret the sensory input may vary considerably, however.

Two of the most important research findings that have been established as correct thus far by behavioral scientists are 1) What we perceive through our senses is highly influenced by what our brains want to see and hear; that is, preconceived beliefs color how we interpret information from our senses, and 2) What we observe influences how we behave.

How do our brains determine what is real? Several factors contribute to what we believe is real:

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• The belief must have survival value, such as avoiding certain snakes because we know their bites are venomous and could harm us.

• We tend to believe information sources that we value, such as parents, spouses, respected teachers and friends; we are apt to adopt their views and information sources (e.g., books, media they recommend) unless and until we have proof they are wrong, such as when they abuse us or disappoint our expectations.

• We select information that agrees with our beliefs through a process called confirmation bias; it strengthens our beliefs until contrary outcomes overwhelmingly modify our perceptions.

• The more the same information is repeated, the more likely we are to believe it to be accurate; this is called the repetition illusion.

• The more positive and valuable the belief is described by others, the more likely we are to adopt it as true until the information is clearly wrong.

Recognizing that our beliefs could be wrong is essential to accurately perceiving information. Knowledge about almost everything changes as scientific and logical information accrues. For example, centuries ago most people thought the earth was flat, but as sailors circumnavigated the world and arrived back home, they proved it must be round. Information is needed continuously so we get closer to the truth about everything.

Determining what to believe is most accurate involves gathering information from a variety of sources, especially from sources that differ from our established beliefs. Disparate information especially broadens our thinking.

Examining a variety of media (e.g., television and radio news reports from many different networks, newspapers, magazines and online websites for news and information) with known differences of opinion helps us to achieve objective reviews of specific topics. The information we examine is more likely to be correct when its sources are publicized, such as references after a quote and at the end of scientific articles.

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Let's examine further how the media influence our behavior. Five decades ago there was much concern that what children watch on television influences their behavior, and for good reason.

Drawing on the available research findings at the time, the U.S. Surgeon General's report in 1982 reached several conclusions about children watching violence on television: They may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others; they may be more fearful of the world around them; and they may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.

More recent reviews and reports of his own research by Iowa State University psychologist Dr. Craig Anderson and others in 2010 and later confirm that exposure to violent video games and violence in visual and auditory media increases aggression in the behaviors, thinking and emotions of the observers.

The opposite principle is also true: Exposure to prosocial behaviors, like sharing, increases the likelihood of children and adults behaving similarly. If the observers know and respect the models of positive behaviors, their examples to both children and adults are more credible and more likely to be emulated.

There are sensible recommended guidelines about exposure to violence in the media and entertainment by The American Academy of Family Practitioners in a 2017 Position Paper: www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/violence-media.html . Actually, the guidelines apply to everyone.

They are summarized below:

• Co-watching media content with children or others.

• Discussing the content of the program.

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• Limiting exposure to any electronic media by children to no more than two hours per day.

• Promoting media education to physicians, parents, supervisors and children.

• Advocating for reasonable standards in the media and entertainment industries.

These recommendations make all the more sense in our present era when deviations from the truth and bullying are increasingly portrayed as acceptable by people in leadership positions. As the biblical Gospel by John says, "Only the truth shall make us free."

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