This is one of those moments when being allowed to play a clip from a film would come in handy, specifically that scene from ‘A Few Good Men’ when Jack Nicholson let’s rip with something along the lines “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” I’d even pay (OK, not a lot but a little) to be able to use it. But I’ve already had a rant about how current copyright laws damage usability and revenue.

Anyways, back to the topic at hand…

We tend to believe that knowing the truth will help us to decide on the best course of action. But research is discovering that we often do not want to see or hear the truth, that instead we often seek information to support decisions we have already made, with little regard for its accuracy.

Why does this matter? The decreasing cost of data mining and visualisation technologies are enabling us to analyse increasing quantities of information, including real-time business transactions. We assume such systems will lead us to make better, more informed, decisions. But, when drawing conclusions and planning actions, we need to be careful we don’t misinterpret the information and select the ‘truth’ that fits with our expectations.

It seems our brains are hard wired to accept what we want to believe and dismiss bad news as untrue or simply ignore it, no matter how strong the evidence or what the predicted consequences are. Indeed, neuroscientists are beginning to show how our brains deliberately mislead us to protect us.

Do we find the truth or create it?

Here’s what a couple of experts say:

“…often, we don’t actually want to hear the truth. If we hear what we want to hear, we accept it, true or not.” – Robert Feldman, Professor of Psychology, University of Massachusetts

“Someone who wants to believe a proposition tends to ask: ‘Can I believe it?’ In contrast, someone who wants to deny its truth tends to ask: ‘Must I believe it?’ – Tom Gilovich, Professor of Pyschology, Cornell University

An extreme example of this effect, as reported in The Guardian (21st February, 2004), referring to Prime Minister Tony Blair:

“…I think he was telling the truth when he said he didn’t know that the forty-five minute claim in the notorious September 2002 dossier referred only to battlefield weapons. He didn’t know because he didn’t need to know. He was bent on going to war in any case, for reasons which had nothing to do with Saddam’s armoury. He believed it was essential for Britain to fight alongside the Americans in a war they were manifestly determined to launch…”

Dave Pollard also wrote about how we tend not to pay attention to what we don’t want to think about or don’t want to know. And there are plenty of examples to pick from. Too often, when it is bad news, we don’t want to hear it – we don’t want to know the truth. Having information at our finger tips won’t change that fact…

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