Facts or Fairy Tales
(Investigator 5, 1989 March.  Courtesy of The Advertiser, 1966, November 19.)

Most people feel that they have good grounds for their beliefs and attitudes. However, it is now a psychological commonplace that the real reasons for the stand a man takes are often rather different from those that figure in his arguments.

This point was brought out last week by a University lecturer in psychology. Speaking of the varied reactions to those who claim such paranormal powers as clairvoyance he said, "Both believers and sceptics generally reveal quite strong motivation...they seem to need to believe or not to believe, emphatically and even violently."

This, of course, is but one illustration of something that is obvious enough to anyone who has been involved in a domestic argument, joined in a discussion on morals or religion, or followed an election campaign. Human beings generally find it difficult to he objective in their judgments. Ideally we should be swayed by facts alone, but in actual practice things are more complicated.

Freud and Marx, with their followers, have made our generation especially sensitive to the presence of unacknowledged non-rational factors in human reasoning. The psychoanalyst speaks about the process of rationalisation, whereby people devise reasons for attitudes which are actually due to repressed emotions. The Marxist, for his part, alleges that there is an ideological taint in the thinking of the West. He maintains that the prevailing ethical and religious ideas of our society are ultimately determined by the economic interests of the dominant class (though he is strangely blind to the possibility that the cultures of Communist countries could be similarly tainted).

Some who engage in controversy are very fond of giving psychological explanations of the beliefs of their opponents or of suggesting that unacknowledged motives lie behind them. It is often assumed that when this has been done the ideas in question have been discredited. The fact is that this sort of argument is a double-edged weapon and can often be turned against those who use it. In practice such accusations and counter accusations tend to cancel each other out so that a decision still has to be made about the objective facts of the case.

If the sceptic accuses the religious man of having a deep-seated infantile need for a protective father figure it may perhaps be suggested with equal plausibility that his own attitude springs from a rejection of paternal authority due possibly to an unhappy experience in early years. The question that still has to be answered, however, is "What are the facts which are alleged to support or discredit this particular system of belief?"

An election candidate can delight his more unthinking supporters by saying that the motive behind the policy of his opponents is a desire to curry favour with his country's allies or conversely to appease the Communists; to protect the interests of big business or placate the big trade unions. His rival, however, is likely to be making the corresponding counter-accusations. Such tactics may add fire to a campaign, but they do little to help answer the one question that matters, "What are the merits of the respective policies and what is their effect likely to be if they are implemented?"

In today's world we are subject to a barrage of views, arguments and propaganda on a whole range of subjects. We are likely to make reasonable and informed choices only if we are thoroughly alive to the power of emotion and to the presence of irrational elements in our own make-up. Being thus prepared we will he especially critical of those who seek to influence us by appealing to our prejudices or encouraging us to engage in wishful thinking rather than by giving us solid facts and good reasons.