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May 3, 2013

The unchecked truth

At the heart of many conflicts is a belief about the nature of truth. Two or more people will construct their version of “what happened.” In some cases, they have been the direct participants of the past events, and therefore they claim the right to know the truth of events as they happened. In other cases, they heard it from people they trust. However, almost inevitably, their versions of events in the past are very different. In the absence of conflict, such disparate versions of reality happily exist in different heads, and their owners either do not know or do not care that someone else remembers the same events very differently. However, when they are asked to recall it in a confrontational situation, those differences come up against each other, clash, and tend to deepen the conflict rather than resolve it. When someone else is retelling the story with which you grew comfortable, it creates a whole set of questions about the other person’s motivation, truthfulness, the attack on your integrity, etc.

Why is this happening? First, because we’re the story-telling creatures. We have the deep need to construct a coherent narrative. Therefore we fill in the gaps in our factual knowledge with guesses, especially about other people’s motives (which we cannot read). We have to; otherwise the story does not hang together, and bothers us. It remains in what some psychologists call the cognitive dissonance. Only a few people have developed a habit of constantly challenging their own version of events. Self-doubt is a relatively rare skill; most of us do not have it. But the need for story-telling makes us create a total, holistic story. And how does a story become complete? - By providing an explanation to the actors’ motives. Aha, I know WHY he did this; I can now rest easy, and archive the event. To commit an even to our long-term memory, we need a label, a value judgment: “a bad person story,” “an incompetent person story,” “a nice person story.” This is why we actually have the social memories – to keep track of our friends, enemies, and who we owe a favor, and who owes favor to us. The evolutionary function of the brain is largely to provide for this kind of accounting. It worked well in small bands of early humans with exhaustive face-to-face interactions, and repetitive events. It does not work that well in complex organizations. Our brains are seriously deficient for the world we have created.

In complex organizations, where many transactions are by e-mail, through a third person, or spread over time, we simply do not have access to the whole set of facts. This is especially true in interactions that include many people. But no matter how little we know, our instinct is to create a full story.

In addition, human memory changes the story every time we recall it. The more often we recall a certain event, the more details we add to it. Most people know about the phenomenon of false memories, or confabulations. Unfortunately, we all suffer from the very mild version of it. Take any of your youth or childhood memories, preferably one that you have recalled many times, and try to fact-check with other family members. You will see that certain details of it you have made up. But because in our society there is such a premium on honesty, and on good memory, we tend to balk at a suggestion that we misrepresent a factual event. The mechanisms of self-justification kick in powerfully when we are doubted.

The solutions to this dilemma have been around for a long time. One is to agree that no one has the whole truth. No matter how righteous you feel, and how noble your motives, you do not possess the whole truth, nor are other people obligated to buy your version of events. The second solution comes from the ancient Greek and Roman laws. It is still the cornerstone of our judicial system. There are rules for public contest between the conflicting versions of the truth. Basically, the public, or its representatives have the right to construct their own version of the truth by challenging and considering the individual versions.

And finally, my favorite philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin made a more general claim. He said that error is not the only source of multiple voices. If two people disagree, it does not mean that one of them wrong. It may be the case for a narrow set of empirically verifiable disputes, but does not apply to the vast majority of human interactions. The ability to internalize dialog, to be able to challenge and check your own truth is becoming an essential skill for living in the contemporary society. The truth is irreducible to one story, it is always a set of mutually addressed, but distinct stories.

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