Gaslighting Perceptions of Politics

The deepening crisis at the WH has just sucked all the air out of the news. There are few stories on any of the other myriad important things happening in the world. Perhaps it is justifies because there is nothing more important. And, we should all be aware of what is going on. If there were one lesson from the ’16 election, it was that we need an informed, well-educated, and engaged electorate to make our democracy work. Maybe that message is now getting through. Unfortunately, given the broad and deep chasm that divides the political spectrum, we may not all be viewing this unfolding catastrophe in the same way.

It would seem that human beings in all of God’s infinite wisdom have evolved to be less concerned with truth and accuracy than agreement. Since our existence and survival on the savannas of East Africa back in the misty shadowy distance past depended on our ability to promote and maintain group cohesion, it was far more important that we agreed than it was for us to be accurate.

Here at the Psy, we are deeply amazed by the capacity of human beings to ignore the plainly obvious and pursue what seems to be mad hubristic paths. Given our current circumstances, i.e. the Ol’ Pussy Grabber occupying the White House, understanding this phenomenon is the only way to prevent it from consuming us body and soul. While I’ve written lots about the cognitive biases and heuristics that drive that tendency, I feel today, we need to look at it all from a different angle. That angle is perception: its unreliability and its influences on our decisions and behaviors.

It is this combination of the need for group agreement on the interpretation of the environment and the capacity to ignore contradictory evidence that makes gaslighting possible, especially in politics.

Psych 101

First a little psych 101:

  • The only information that makes it into the brain, comes through the senses. The brain does not have a direct connection to the outside world.
  • Our sense organs are eyes for sight, ears for audition, nose for olfaction, tongue for gustation, skin for tactile sensation, and semi-circular canals and joints for vestibular sensation. Nothing impresses the chicks like using SAT words, amirite girls? You’re going weak in the knees right now, amirite? A good vocabulary: chicks dig it, so get yours now.
  • Sensation refers to the reactions to our sensory organs to stimulation, and the resulting signal they send to the brain.
  • Perception refers to the interpretation of that sensation in our brains! And, this is where things get weird!

Okay, we think we perceive, i.e. interpret the world, as it really is, but we don’t. We perceive the world only as accurately as we need to survive as a species, not as individuals. Any more accuracy would be a waste of resources, and God and Mother Nature abhor a waste of resources. They just don’t cotton to it.

Color Perception


Red-Green Color Blindness

The traditional example used to illustrate this point in psychology is color. Human beings and I dare say most mammals have three groupings of cells, called cones, inhabiting our retinas. They allow us to see various wavelengths of light. One set responds to the blue portion of the visible spectrum (called visible because it is the only one that we can detect with our sense organs), another, green, and a third, red. From these three, we can perceive a large number of colors. We think (a) it is all of the colors and (b) that’s what the world looks like.

  • Dogs only have two sets of cones, blue and yellow. That’s right. They have a set of cells that respond to the yellow portion of the visible light spectrum. They are blind, color blind if you will, to colors in the red and green stretches of the spectrum.
  • Bees have three sets of cones, but one sees ultraviolet as well as the more conventional, blue and green. Ha! Imagine — you can’t — what they see. It ain’t like in Predator or any of those other movies that show you detection outside of our electromagnetic spectrum.
  • Birds, reptiles, insects, and some mammals are tetrachromatic meaning they have four sets of cones typically having our three plus ultraviolet. Some even have more than four, for example, the mantis shrimp have 12 sets of cones! They can’t necessarily distinguish more colors, but can probably process color faster.

Come on, man, I can hear you thinking loudly, what the actual fuck is this all about? I came here for snarky, sarcasticky, and profaney political interpretation and I get color perception in mantis fucking shrimp?!?

Okay, I hear ya, I think, probably not as loud, though. But can ya hear me thinking it? If you can, you should probably see someone about that — ha ha. Don’t get me started about bats and echolocation!

You start that shit, you answer, and I’m outa here.

My point is that what we think we know about the world is directly related to our ability to perceive the stimulation that is out there. It is difficult to accept because the world seems so damn real to us.

Get off the refer, you idiotic college sophomore!

Perceiving the Political World

And, that relates to our current political discourse because we trust our perceptions and the conclusions we leap to because of them. We have to. It’s how we’ve survived for millennia. It is kinda like the blackbox dilemma: put shit in, get shit out. So, when I read some of the fantastic investigative reporting coming out of the Washington Post, the New York Times, NBC, CNN (to a lesser degree), the Guardian, and other news sources, I think I’m getting the god’s honest truth! I’m sure of it! Comey wrote a goddamn memo outlining the Pussy Grabber’s attempts to grab the Russia-Trump investigation by the pussy! It happened. I read it in the Post! And, I conclude that the bought-and-paid-for Repubes in Congress won’t impeach the Ol’ Pussy Grabber because their evil partisan hearts are bent on selling us cheap for an unneeded unnecessary tax cut for the rich even if that means allowing Russia to control our executive branch. That’s my stupid liberal conclusion, but to me it is as obvious as the nose on your face.

But, those of us who read the widely discredited Breitbart, listen to the master of half-truth Lush Limbaugh, and watch the purveyor of sexual harassment and racism, Fox News think they have a bead on truth and it ain’t the one we liberals have.

Okay, so liberals are seeing with the sight of freaking birds with four cones and conservatives are seeing with the mantis shrimp’s 12 cones do, so what? So what! We share a world and have to interact with each other! Remember that human beings work best in groups. We need to have a minimum of agreement in order to maintain the group cohesion needed to thrive together. We have to have a degree of shared reality in order to successfully work together. That’s agreement. In case you haven’t noticed, we ain’t exactly working together or agreeing.

Bear.jpgIf a liberal and a conservative are trekking through an Indian jungle and come across an endangered tiger, the liberal snaps a picture and then runs like hell. The conservative tries to shoot it and gets eaten. Okay, not the best analogy since it results in ridding the world of one more crazed conservative. But, if the same liberal and conservative are walking down that same jungle path and one sees a puppy dog and the other sees a lion, they both think the other’s reaction is cray-cray. Just like a conservative to take a shot at a puppy dog! They hate nature and everything in it! the liberal thinks in outrage. Typical liberal thinking that a tiger won’t eat them just because they have empathy for it! Good thing I have my gun so I can shoot it. But will they thank me? Hell no! thinks the conservative.

That second vignette is the one we live in right now! How can we make progress when one side is trying to pet a puppy dog and the other is trying to shoot a tiger? Don’t take my word for it — seemingly no one does since I think I’ve had the psychological goods on the Ol’ Pussy Grabber from the start and somehow defying my every effort to thwart him, he won — read what they’re writing over at the established and credible Vox where Brian Resnick defines politics thus:

Politics is about establishing a shared sense of reality with like-minded people. It’s not about facts.

“I just choose to not listen”: why Trump supporters are tuning out the scandals

Social Identity Theory

As Social Identity Theory teaches, we form in-groups and base our individual self-esteem on the esteem of the group making it extremely difficult for us to criticize or defy the group. Taken to its extreme, we enter into groupthink where we actively suppress dissenting views and individual group members fear voicing their misgivings. Groupthink is akin to gaslighting a group. Preventing dissenting views means that individual members have to conform to the doctrine of the group. They either change their beliefs so that they match those of the majority, cutting taxes for the wealthy really will cause the economy to grow and create jobs. Or they go along with the belief so as to maintain their membership, colluding with the Russians will endanger the country and threaten our democracy, by why should I be the one to rock the boat and risk being primaried? Sure, everything sounds stupid when you state plainly and simply!

My view of the right is that they are there now and have been for much longer than a decade. Unfortunately, the left is getting there. Some argue that Sanders and Clinton supporters are developing groupthink right now. Groupthink results in disastrous decisions like invading Iraq or the Bay of Pigs.

There is solid evidence that we use our massive intellects to rationalize our group beliefs rather than ensure that they are factual and logical. While all that rationalizing helps reaffirm our membership in the group, it it doesn’t necessarily help us get to truth. We advance our small group’s cohesion, political party or Congressional caucus, at the expense of the larger group’s cohesion, the nation.

Science Fact: Having Beliefs Challenged Hurts

Science fact: hearing the opposing political viewpoint is painful almost as painful as getting a tooth pulled and worth quite a bit less than $3.00. So, if we aren’t hearing from the other side, then we can’t base an opinion on the what the other side believes. Instead of our cones defining the world for us, our sources of information are defining our world. Yet, we are equally as sure that what we see accurately reflects the world as we are sure that what we consume as news accurately reflects the world.

Here’s an alarming trend: there are a growing number of liberal-leaning fake news sites. Perhaps you’ve read some of these things your own self on social media:

President Donald Trump is about to resign as a result of the Russia scandal. Bernie Sanders and Sean Hannity are Russian agents. The Russians have paid off House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz to the tune of $10 million, using Trump as a go-between. Paul Ryan is a traitor for refusing to investigate Trump’s Russia ties. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent charged with discrediting the American conservative movement.

Democrats are falling for fake news about Russia
Zack Beauchamp
on Vox

Essentially, fake news is gaslighting. It is causing us to doubt our reality. It is causing us to mis-perceive the world. And, what do we call people who do not deal with reality? Crazy. Reality can be a slippery construct, but we have to have an agreed upon reality. We cannot accept a politician telling us that Obamacare is in a death spiral when it clearly is not. It ain’t working perfectly, but it is working for most. That kind of lie in service of a political agenda should not be acceptable to anyone in the electorate. We cannot accept being told that the Ol’ Pussy Grabber did not reveal sources or methods when he’s being accused of revealing sensitive intelligence. But, that’s the world we live in.

We are not perceiving the world in accurate enough detail to allow for us to survive. Eventually the divide that exists between the two ends of the political spectrum’s perceptions of the problems and solutions will lead to a real schism that will be nearly impossible to heal. To paraphrase President Obama, reality has a way of biting you in the ass. And that makes us the United Fucking States of Fucking Stupid.


7 replies »

  1. Bravo! Your in depth analysis is spot on. I’d love to be sitting in your classroom. The discussions would abound as thoughts circle the room and awaken silent minds!!! Well done!


    • Howdy Lesley!

      I love the classroom as a way to engage students in more meaningful discussion and help emerging adults learn to have respectful thoughtful well informed discussions. I also am a strong believer that you have to be focused to participate and the easiest way is to keep it lively and moving. We have some lively discussions, which are not always appreciated by the school’s admin. Being an ex-social worker and having worked in STD clinics and as an AIDS case manager, there is no topic that is taboo in my classroom, and I talk at the level the other side can understand. For the most part, students appreciate it, but it can scare other teachers and administrators.

      The worst, though, is when you encounter something deeply disturbing in a student. I once had a student who was a sexual assault survivor. She was struggling to overcome the trauma of the assault. We had some meaningful talks and in a small way, I was able to support her. Luckily, she was also getting professional help outside of the school. I’ve also had students with grandparents who were struggling with dementia. I’ve been able to help quite a bit there, too. It’s pretty fun to help people communicate better and in a more satisfying way with an older adult who is losing her faculties. Most people are surprised that it can be done.

      And, then there is the curriculum… sometimes that is a detriment to learning.



  2. I appreciate your in depth analysis of perception and social identity. In 28 years of teaching, I fought to channel these diverse ideas into a productive and somewhat agreeable course agenda. The problem now of a ” my way or the highway” mentality is mirrored by an obsolete electrical system that perpetuates this condition.I become more of a progressive minded activist with each passing day,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Whoa, Suze! That’s dark. I’ve written a post about authoritarianism and the Ol’ Pussy Grabber. He definitely fits the bill, but in the writing of it, I realized that the entire damn GOP fits the bill. The whole damn bunch is more concerned about their agenda — transferring wealth from the middle class to the upper class — than they are about the country or the democracy. Not only is the Ol’ Pussy Grabber attacking our democratic institutions, but so are the Republicans. Look at the state legislatures, especially NC, they are taking the voting franchise! They are actively trying to suppress the vote. They are undermining our confidence in our media, in our elected officials. They tell us that all politicians lie. All politicians are only out for their own gain… and we believe them. We, as a collective, not individuals, believe all of it. That’s gaslighting.

    Luckily, there are signs that our democratic institutions are holding up and are pushing back. The DoJ has appointed a special prosecutor. The congressional investigative committees are being more serious. New York’s attorney general is investigating. The courts have struck down the Muslim ban.

    But, it is clear that the Dems, for all their faults and inconsistencies are not demagoguing authoritarians. And, as fragile as it is, it gives me hope. There are some good politicians out there. Corey Booker, Elizabeth Warren, the Castro twins.

    The other thing that gives me hope is the Resistance. There are lots of people who are at least active and are looking for ways to resist these authoritarian attacks.



  4. We will not survive this presidency. Oh the US of A Will still be here..so will baskets of puppies and tigers for all of us to either cuddle or shoot..but the politics of usual MUST either destroy the govt or the govt destroy the politicians..there seems no other way. It would seem to me that once the tiger shooters are done and the puppy huggers come into their own once again (oh it will happen, just not anytime soon) the way in which we elect shall be permanently changed. electoral college amendments are already in the works. Once banned, it will be a single party with multiple choices (all of them bad) and the one with the most points wins the presidency. No more running mates, second number of points is VP and so on. It’s being whispered about in political hallways and back rooms as the “reasonable’ way of doing things. Each side I am sure is hoping the other is the soon to be defunct one. It makes me hope I just give up the ghost and “go to glory” as my dear sweet gramma used to say just to avoid it all.

    Liked by 1 person

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