People prefer a strong narrative -- one consistent with their prior beliefs -- over the truth. Indeed, they reject the truth in favor of this narrative -- no matter how much counter-evidence is provided. This explains both birthers and Americans' reaction to Osama bin Laden's assassination.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, May 5, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

We Can't Handle the Truth - Give Us Good Narratives

When Barack Obama publicized his "long-form" birth certificate, people joked and moaned about the birthers who would refuse to relinquish their cherished narrative that Obama was foreign-born.  They simply found that story superior to the truth.

You know -- like we find the fantasy narrative of Osama bin Laden's assassination superior to the truth.

When bin Laden was killed, we were fed the story that after a tremendous firefight, a well-trained cadre of Navy Seals finally killed bin Laden, who was firing at them from behind a woman he was using as a "human shield."  How did we know this?  In the immediate aftermath pundits claimed the entire thing was videoed through to the President and key military and intelligence staff in real time.

What a great story!  This narrative proved/accomplished: (1) our troops are incredibly brave and well-trained, (2) the President and key officials were completely on top of the attack, (3) bin Laden died as the same scum he was when he lived, and we were totally morally justified in our actions, (4) we finally (after 10 years) avenged ourselves, and especially the families of victims of 9/11, (5) all Americans can feel proud together about our vengeance against the worst terrorist in history.

Perfect! We needed that. When I visited Ground Zero the day I wrote the post, I was near tears. The President's subsequent visit -- when he spoke to families of 9/11 victims -- moved not only observers, but the nation. He presented the thanks from all of us to New York City firefighters -- God bless them.

However, none of the previous narrative was true. The President and his aides found out what happened inside the house after it occurred -- like the rest of us -- and they seem to have gotten every major fact wrong. There were no guards, no armed resistance, and no firefight. The only shots fired inside the house were by American troops; five unarmed people were killed there; bin Laden wasn't armed, did not fire, and used no one as a shield.

Dang, and our narrative was so great!

Here is how readers of my May 3 blog pointing out these inconsistencies reacted to this inconvenient truth.

Some denied my version of events or pointed out how unqualified I was to comment:

  • I'm glad you don't let politics or paranoia influence your interpretation of world events, Stanton. /sarcasm
  • What planet are you from dork? Before you speak (unless you are God) get your own facts straight. You know nothing except wanting to pontificate your own psychosis. There's a med for that.
  • I'm just wondering how your training in addiction studies made you into an international policy expert with a deep understanding of covert military actions and access to top secret information? I see you have a law degree as well so... Did you write a book about it? When not writing about alcoholics do you work for the CIA, NSA, UN Security Council, NATO?? Maybe you were a Navy SEAL yourself? Well? I'm just wondering where you are getting your information from.

How brave the troops were:

  • The real story here is missed: the incredible bravery and commitment of our Navy SEALS, who had to be briefed about the real likelihood that the entire OBL compound was booby trapped, and there was a good chance it would be blown to smithereens from the inside.
  • Go Navy! American Servicemen/women are the finest PEOPLE in the world.

Anything was justified by how bad bin Laden was:

  • Honestly, this is ridiculous. Osama is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Europeans/Americans and tens of thousands of Muslims. I can't believe that any sane mind would attempt to chastise the actions America took.
  • OBL killed thousands of innocent unarmed unsuspecting noncombatant people.His attack on us was planned in an antiseptic,clean, safe, BRAVE JIHAD PLANNING ROOM. If his demise were at the hands of 1000 ball peen hammer wielding kindergarteners, my only prayers would be for the kindergarteners.

Most said they didn't care about the untruths -- they don't matter:

  • As the fog of war lifts and the real story continues to come out, it seems that most Americans -- and most of the world -- are tolerating it just fine.
  • I personally don't care if they burned him alive with Bic lighters as he was getting dialysis. Light him up on the crapper. Who cares?

All right, I understand. Everything's okay. But, then, why was it necessary for us to be fed such a story, for which we fell hook, line, and sinker?

Because there are some problems with the truth. The idea that 20 or more men in body arrmor, night goggles, and the latest in weaponry raided a home and killed five people, including a woman, two neighborhood residents who befriended bin Laden, and bin Laden's son -- all of whom were unarmed -- isn't how we like to think of ourselves. Even simply shooting an unarmed bin Laden while he stood there rubs some people the wrong way (wimps!). So we erased all these things from reality, and focused on the evils of bin Laden.

I'm okay on killing bin Laden -- as apparently the commenters are. So why can't we own up to it? Even now, the story has become that he was reaching for a weapon (bin Laden was reportedly shot in the face and chest with a high-power rifle, which doesn't sound like he was reaching down for something).

But then what about killing the other four people in the house?  Everyone okay on that?  Can we send troops in to shoot anyone who is bad, or inconvenient to us?

Just asking.