Years ago, I jumped in my Olds Delta 88, turned on the radio, and took off for town. There was a preacher on the radio who, before I got around to changing the station, said something that caught my attention. I continued to listen because the fellow seemed to have something worth saying.
He went on to something else with which I agreed, and I thought, “This guy’s not bad.” Then he said something that took me by surprise. I not only agreed with it, but it was something that I had said myself. I had never heard anyone else say it, yet he phrased it exactly the way I do.
I glanced at the car stereo. It was not set to a broadcast station but was playing a cassette tape. Apparently, my wife had been listening to a sermon on tape. Suddenly, I realized that the guy I was listening to was me. It was a sermon I had preached years earlier.
It took me about two miles to figure this out. It was not because I was utterly lacking in self-awareness—not completely anyway. The church’s recording deck and the car’s cassette player apparently ran at different speeds, pitching my voice higher than it normally is.
I had a good laugh at myself. First, because I hadn’t recognized my own voice. Second, because it took me two or three miles to remember my own sermon. (And if I didn’t remember it, how can I expect the church family to do so?) And third, because I had been internally applauding my own wisdom, which I would have been ashamed to do had I known it was me.
But isn’t that just like us? We think other people are wise, whenever they say what we say. Our own echo always carries the ring of truth.
Isn’t that what is happening in our culture today, particularly on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter? People scan their Facebook page looking to find voices that sound just like theirs. When they “like” some post on Facebook, they are frequently saying “Amen” to their own echo.
The Bible, particularly the Book of Proverbs, encourages people to seek counsel from many sources. But who does that anymore? We seek counsel from our own echo, as it bounces around social media in the form of memes, tweets, and “likes”.
Gregg Ten Elshof, Professor of Philosophy at Biola University, calls this “attention management.” We are likely to attend to the things that reinforce beliefs we already hold. And since, as William James noted, “Only those items I notice shape my mind,” we are apt not to notice the things that might undermine our truth constructs.
I have caught myself employing attention management. I have seen others, both religious believers and atheists, do the same. It is a universal problem. People who think that they have never done it are probably attention management’s most proficient users.
Ten Elshof illustrates attention management in his excellent book, “I Told Me So.” Some years ago, a study was performed in which subjects were presented evidence linking excessive caffeine use with breast cancer. After reviewing the data, subjects were asked if they found the evidence convincing. Women who consumed large amounts of caffeine found the evidence less credible than those who consumed little. Men, whether they were coffee drinkers or not, found the evidence persuasive.
In other words, people who might consider the hypothesis bad news were least likely to be convinced by the evidence. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how this works itself out in debates about vaccines, masking, congressional spending limits, belief in the existence of God or, for that matter, which college football teams deserve to be in the championship playoffs.
This problem, rooted in the human tendency toward self-deception, is not going away. What can we do about it? A first step is to humble ourselves and stop being dogmatic. A second step is to give those with whom we disagree the benefit of the doubt regarding their motives. A third step is to listen to understand, not refute. This won’t cure the problem, but it may help control it.
(First published by Gannett.)