Friday, January 13, 2006

Truthiness

As you all probably know by now, the American Dialect Society announced that "truthiness," a word coined by Stephen Colbert on the first episode of his Daily Show spinoff, is the 2005 word of the year. Here's the segment from The Colbert Report, in which he gives his "word of the day":
Truthiness. Now I'm sure some of the Word Police, the wordanistas over at Webster's, are gonna say, "Hey, that's not a word." Well, anybody who knows me knows that I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart.
"Wordanistas," by the way, should definitely have been the runner up for word of the year. Anyway, the linguists have already spent a lot of time discussing Colbert's new word, pointing out, among other things, that it's not actually a new word, though Colbert's meaning is different from the OED's established (and from what I can tell, rarely used) meaning. Michael Adams, a linguist at North Carolina State University, defined truthiness, in the Colbertian sense, as something that is "truthy, not facty."

Now that the linguists have had their say, it's time for the cognitive psychologists to speak about truthiness. "Truthy, not facty" strikes me as a pretty good way of describing the way we usually think about things. Most of the time, when we're thinking about the world, we're not trying to determine whether the information we're receiving from it is factual, but instead working to integrate it with the representations we've already got. The information that we're likely to notice, and keep, is just the information that fits with those representations, regardless of whether that information happens to fit with the facts. If something is truthy because it fits with our beliefs, but not with facts, then a lot of what we'll end up believing with be truthy, not facty. It's because of this that you get things like cognitive dissonance or the confirmation bias. Those involve searching for and emphasizing truthiness over factiness.

The preference for truthiness over factiness is also one of the things behind the sorts of rhetorical strategies that underlie someone like Lakoff's framing analysis. The factiness of any particular political or ethical issue can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the way one thinks and talks about the truthiness of those issues. It can't be a coincidence, then, that Colbert's coining of the term was meant as a spoof of the anti-intellectualism that's rampant on the right side of the political spectrum. That anti-intellectualism is all about spinning the truthiness of an issue to cause people to either ignore the issues factiness, or interpret that factiness in a certain way. It's a direct manipulation of the way people naturally think. And Colbert's, or his writers' recognition of this fact makes me wonder if he or they took a few cognitive psychology courses in college. Or perhaps they're just naturally insightful in the ways of the mind. Either way, since the word is so descriptive of what's going on when people reason about the world, it's only a matter of time before "truthiness" makes its way into the cognition literature.

11 comments:

Matt McIntosh said...

I'm sorry, I can't stop chuckling at the implication that the minds of those on "the right side of the political spectrum" somehow work differently than those on the left side. My lord man, you do this for a living.

Anonymous said...

Matt, Chris wrote "... the anti-intellectualism that's rampant on the right side of the political spectrum.", and in the next sentence clarified "That anti-intellectualism is all about spinning the truthiness of an issue". So it seems he was talking about selected communications strategies and how they play into how everyone people's minds generally work, not about one group's minds working differently from another group's.

Chris said...

Matt, anon is right. Left-thinking and right-thinking minds don't work differently, but as many (including Lakoff, but he wasn't the first) have argued, Republicans have done a much better job of understanding, at least implicitly, how minds work, and taking advantage of that knowledge. One way of doing so is appealing to "truthiness" rather than "factiness," because truthiness offers the opportunity for spin, though the connecting of representations that the facts alone would not connect, while factiness doesn't. Democrats try to do it, of course, but they generally don't do it as successfully, and they don't do it through anti-intellectualism (which often amounts to, "let's ignore the facts entirely and go straight to the truthiness of the matter.").

Chris said...

Matt, it might also help for me to point out that I used right-wing anti-intellectualism as an example not only because it's so successful (Fox News' talk shows are incredibly successful, and epitomize this approach, as does Bush's "common man" persona, which has won him two national elections), but because it's what Colbert was making fun of. I'm sure it wouldn't take long for you to find a use of truthiness over factiness on the left, but you'd likely discover just as quickly that the left's use hasn't been as successful.

Buridan said...

Actually, there are plenty of studies showing that "conservative minds" work differently than "liberal minds." Here's one of the more recent studies done on this topic:

Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition

Chris said...

Buridan,

I read that paper about a year ago. I thought I'd posted on it, but if I did, I can't find the post. It is certainly true that conservatives and liberals will see the world differently, and that this will be a result of many different psychological variables, some of which are discussed in that paper. However, the basics of how conservative and liberal minds will still be the same.

he who is known as sefton said...

oh, yeah, I guess "verisimilitude" is just tad too erudite ... darn.

Anyway, here's what I have to say:

Perusing your blog, specifically, "Mixing Memory", I have arrived at what I believe is a defensible inference. Both you and your readers would welcome news of in-your-face overt opposition to your "smirking chimp", my "dum'ya botch".

In plainer terms, I want to run for Representative for Pennsylvania's 10th Congressional District on a platform calling for the impeachment of President George Walker Bush.

Incidentally, I deliberately referred to your blog, to indicate that I visited your blog as an individual, and not as a spammer. Yes, that last is an illustion to a "pre-deconstruction" chick flick with a rating of two and a half hankies.

Oh, alright (!) already, I'll own up to it. I owe getting my message out to so many bloggers to COPY/PASTE ... gim'me a break ... will'ya puh-lease! I got to get the word out somehow.

Ah, before you click on any of the enclosed hyperlinks, please read the entirely of my comment. For example, the three planks I nailed together in my platform out to get me elected. "impeach bush" is the first plank. The second is "impeach bush". The third is like the second, "impeach bush".

To continue, the first hyperlink below leads to the opening salvo of my campaign.

http://hewhoisknownassefton.blogspot.com/2006/01/danger-senator-specter-danger.html

As for the second hyperlink, it leads to evidence that my candidacy is about more than opposition solely for the sake of opposition.

http://hewhoisknownassefton.blogspot.com/2006/01/dispelling-stench-in-oval.html

toodles
......\
.he who is known as sefton

oh, by the bye, it's a good guess you'll find what I have to say in PROMETHEAN COMMENT interesting to the point of startling. In that segment, I advance the case that the mere nomination of Judge Alito is tantamount to treason.

MathCogIdiocy said...

As a mathematician first (psych student second) I find the concept of "truthiness" very disturbing. I've now returned to this post several times in the past day in an effort to understand how people can conceive of something that is not fact as being true. Any words of wisdom or should I just return to my mantra (people are not as tidy as numbers)?

he who is known as sefton said...

"At the recent Washington Correspondents' Dinner, master comedian Stephen Colbert performed magnificently. With the rapier of wit and the mace of truth, he respectively skewered and censured the presidency of "dum'ass botch".

Talk about wonderful lagniappe! Mr Colbert made that nincompoop's lap dogs in our national conventional media run for cover with their tail between their legs. And that's not all our man accomplished.

Tucked away in his address to the dinner's flabbergasted attendees, like a ticking time bomb, there was an 'easter egg', which we had absolutely . . . here 'we' is a polite nod . . . NO right to expect. Like the Easter Bunny in a mischievous mood, Mr Colbert camouflaged a bon mot, so profound as to approach philosophical.

oh, before I reveal Mr Colbert's casual accomplishment, I should like to preface with a caveat. The appropriate interpretation of that remark requires sagacity an-- . . ."

oh, alright (!) already, I'll admit it. The above text is meant to serve as "bait" for the dear Reader's curiosity. Yes, I would like people to visit my blog. And why not?! The average visitor is bound to find one or two startling insights. What's more, it's a good bet that more than a few visitors will discover that I evoke with the written word thought, hitherto more, well, tantalizing than articulated.

toodles
...../
.he who is known as sefton

http://hewhoisknownassefton.blogspot.com/2006/04/rehabilitation-of-and-by-and-for-right.html

. . . oh, yeah, I should add that the full title for that post is "rehabilitation of and by and for the right wing" . . . by the bye, depending on visitor's essentiality, one might be either heartened or dismayed by one, or two, of my easter eggs.

Anonymous said...

really think you should all read 1984
very scary book by orson wellis

in it the big brother political party are making a new dictornary that reduces how many words one uses in day to day life

scary very scary

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