From the moment back in March when President Trump declared the Mueller report to be a “Complete and Total EXONERATION ” of him, Democrats and others have tried to counter with what the report actually says: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” In May, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) and her colleagues decided that widespread ignorance of the report’s contents remained a problem: “If you think there was no obstruction and no collusion,” Scanlon said, “you haven’t read the Mueller report.” So she and her colleagues read it aloud, on the House floor. A few weeks later, Robert Mueller himself finally spoke, if briefly: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”
Now Mueller plans to appear before two congressional committees for public testimony this coming week. Who better to correct the stubborn “alternative facts” about the report than its author?
We’re not optimistic. The aspiration is unimpeachable, but spoon-feeding people the truth does not make them believe it. At best, it’s ineffectual. At worst, it betrays a misunderstanding of the problem. Once people have been the subject of gaslighting, it is difficult — but not impossible — to ungaslight them.
The term has come a long way from its origins in the 1944 movie “Gaslight,” in which a scheming husband tries to drive his puzzled wife mad by convincing her that she is imagining very real things, such as the flickering of a light. Interpersonal gaslighting still works like that: The gaslighted person loses confidence in his ability to see what’s right in front of him. He must have been mistaken, he thinks, and is troubled by this. But today the term more often refers to what happens in the political sphere. There, instead of being convinced that their perceptions are faulty, partisans report being especially confident in their mistaken beliefs.
A deceiver distorts evidence with the aim of making you form a false belief. Expose the distortion, and voilà, all is right and true again. A gaslighter, by contrast, works at a more foundational level, trying to make you doubt your understanding of the world and undermine your confidence in your reasoning.
Deciding what you believe involves thinking through the evidence. But we don’t just have evidence about what we should believe about the world; we also have evidence about how good we are at forming and revising those beliefs. Philosophers call this “higher-order evidence.” Imagine discovering that a medication you have been prescribed has a side effect altering your ability to assess risk. If you made an important decision while taking the medication, you might be inclined to check it again, even if your understanding of the first-order evidence hasn’t changed. It’s generally good advice to think twice about decisions made when very tired or angry or newly in love.
Successful gaslighting can undermine beliefs not just one at a time but wholesale. If you interfere with evidence that supports my evidence , you might make me doubt myself as a thinker altogether. Ultimately, I outsource that critical function to the gaslighter. Politicians lie. Gaslighters build alternative realities.
This may sound abstract, but the differences are not hard to spot in real life. If I have a false belief about the plot of “Moby Dick,” presenting me with the text would be a good way to correct my error. But the facts can’t be counted on to overcome gaslighting. In a recent study , political scientists Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks presented respondents with pictures of the 2009 and 2017 presidential inaugural crowds. Even though the pictures clearly showed the 2009 crowd to be larger, 15 percent of Trump supporters denied this. They opted to report the world as they were told it is, rather than what their own perceptions revealed it to be.
Politically motivated reasoning, of course, didn’t start with Trump. Opposing partisans have long disagreed about basic empirical facts — for example, the movement of well-known economic indicators. Ideologically committed citizens are tribal, and gaslighting exploits tribalism’s vulnerabilities, spreading the contagion of false beliefs from a single issue to a wide range of topics. From a politician’s perspective, why spend energy trying to get voters to fall for a simple lie today if you can get them to fall in line for the future? Lying requires effort and constant attention, and can get complicated quickly.
Gaslighting alleviates the pressure of being discovered. The people who matter have quit the pretense of looking for any evidence to inform their reasoning. Trump has mastered the art: “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” he said in a speech to veterans last summer. “ . . . What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” His followers need only keep their eyes trained on him.
And they do. There is little evidence of any erosion in his support, despite the exposure of his daily untruths. Will Mueller’s taking the nationally televised stage to reiterate what’s in his report be any different?
Gaslighting explains why fact-checking generally doesn’t work. And if the truth contradicts people’s favored leaders, hearing it might even push some voters to harden their opposition to it. Trying to contain gaslighting with the truth is like fighting a wildfire with surgical forceps. The truth is an important tool but not the right one for dousing the emotionally charged allegiances common in politics.
Is it possible to ungaslight citizens? If gaslighting is a loss of confidence in your own reasoning, then the key is restoring that confidence. This is not the same as confidence in your beliefs. Ideologues of all stripes have confidence in their beliefs — to a fault. If you’re confident in your capacities, on the other hand, you’re willing to put them to the test: talking with people who don’t agree with you, for instance, or considering the perspectives of people you don’t like. There is some evidence that those habits do predict better beliefs. Samara Klar, in her research at the University of Arizona, has found that Democrats and Republicans alike are more motivated to find the truth when they reason together with people who disagree with them. Even if we can each be duped by somebody, diverse groups ensure that we can’t all be duped by anybody.
How can we assist in undoing the effects of gaslighting in others? Even if we could single-handedly improve others’ reasoning capacities, it might only empower them to engineer ever more sophisticated defenses of their ideology.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Here are three ideas. First, look for something in the gaslighted person’s belief system that you can accept, and tell them that you do. Political scientists Toby Bolsen and James Druckman have found that if people feel validated, they also feel less pressure to double down on false views. Second, acknowledge times when you’ve sincerely felt bamboozled into taking a mistaken stance. When it comes to motivated reasoning, who among us is without sin? Third, ask questions. In a widely applicable social scientific study, Joshua Kalla of Yale and David Broockman of Stanford showed that persuasion is sometimes possible, even on politically charged issues. If you can ask people questions about when they’ve felt misunderstood, they might find it easier to see things from the opposing side. People don’t need more facts or better reasoning skills. They need to be able to acknowledge the ideas of others and know that their own ideas are recognized, too.
These strategies can offer higher-order evidence that counters the effects of gaslighting. If, on the other hand, we write others off as deliberatively hopeless, we miss chances to practice ungaslighting. Even if we determine that those whom we dismiss are victims of gaslighting, our posture may make the gaslighter’s job easier.
Mueller has said that the “report is my testimony” and expressed doubts about the value of his appearance before Congress. What more can he offer, if he limits his testimony to the facts and reasoning contained in the report? The answer, once again, turns on the distinction between ordinary evidence — “Exhibit A” in a courtroom — and higher-order evidence. Even if Mueller proffers no new facts, his exchange with members of Congress could affect his standing as a trustworthy source. In showing his work, Mueller isn’t likely to add first-order evidence to the record, but that isn’t all that matters.
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