What are the primary factors in how people form opinions? Which has more impact, intuition or reason, in how people perceive Israel? These are some of the most important questions for us at HonestReporting as we fight for fair media coverage of Israel.
After all, correcting anti-Israel bias in the media means erasing the myths and distortions in the news that sway the public away from honest discourse about Israel. The more people see something presented as fact in the news, even if it is later corrected, the more they are likely to internalize it as part of their worldview.
In a recent debate on The New York Times website over Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Righteous Mind,” Michael P. Lynch (author of “In Praise of Reason”) summed up Haidt’s position as follows:
Often “reasoning” really seems to be post-hoc rationalization: we tend to accept that which confirms what we already believe (psychologists call this confirmation bias). And the tendency goes beyond just politics. When people are told that they scored low on an I.Q. test, for example, they are more likely to read scientific articles criticizing such tests; when they score high, they are more likely to read articles that support the tests. They are more likely to favor the “evidence,” in other words, that makes them feel good. This is what Haidt calls the “wag the dog” illusion: thinking that reason is the tail that wags the dog of value judgment.
This kind of confirmation bias is a major challenge not only to HonestReporting but to the entire world of Israel advocacy. We see this type of bias among journalists whenever we find recycled photos, which have already been debunked as false or misleading, alongside current news articles.
A flagrant example appeared on Twitter earlier this year when a UN employee posted an old, unrelated photo of a bleeding Palestinian girl. The tweet strongly implied the photo was current and depicted the effect of an Israeli air strike. Although the photo was removed and the UN employee was placed under investigation after HonestReporting exposed the source, the damage was irrevocable.
As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out, exposure to strong emotional imagery such as a plane wreck will lead people to overestimate the incidence of accidental deaths in the general population. The same can be said about evocative images of alleged victims of Israel military strikes, including phony or mislabeled photos.
So while reason plays an important role in shaping people’s opinions, we cannot ignore the effects of intuition. Cognitive psychologists have made significant progress on the matter in recent years. The community of Israel advocates ignores it at its own peril.