October 23rd, 2007

Perceptions about Iraq: why so impervious to change?

Michael Yon describes the extreme disconnect he sees between the facts in Iraq and perceptions about it. Never the twain shall meet; at least not yet, although he’s doing his bit to change that.

Why has the corrective news of progress had so much difficulty penetrating American consciousness? The summary version of the answer is, “A mind is a difficult thing to change.” The longer version, of course, is much more complex.

Yon touches on one factor, which is that press coverage of violence is almost always far better than coverage of good news, a variant of the old “if it bleeds, it ledes” maxim. In this case, of course, there’s extra motivation for the failure to emphasize progress in Iraq—which is that, for most of the press, it would be the equivalent of saying “I was wrong,” something most human beings are exceedingly reluctant to do. And journalists are certainly all too human.

Yon mentions other factors: errors by the military in its approach to disseminating news, reporters hampered by concerns for their own safety, and lack of funds. But there’s more going on here, which Yon touches on in this passage:

No thinking person would look at last year’s weather reports to judge whether it will rain today, yet we do something similar with Iraq news. The situation in Iraq has drastically changed, but the inertia of bad news leaves many convinced that the mission has failed beyond recovery, that all Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence, or are waiting for us to leave so they can crush their neighbors.

People generally tend to make up their minds based on early perceptions, which are then naturally resistant to change even when challenged by new information. I’ve written about this phenomenon time and again, most notably in the “A mind is a difficult thing to change” series, found on the right sidebar here (and yes, I still plan to finish it).

This phenomenon is hardly limited to perceptions about politics or world events, of course; it’s a fairly universal phenomenon. Keeping an open mind is far more difficult than one might think. It requires not only a certain mental flexibility, but a concomitant and persistent motivation to learn more, despite thinking one already knows enough to make a judgment.

One of the huge factors in the present stuckness of perceptions about Iraq is a combination of complacency, cynicism, and fatigue. Those who have followed the course of the war have been through initial fears, then seeming success, then a series of crucial setbacks, and now—after many years of this—a supposed improvement. The complacency comes from thinking we know all that’s necessary, and that we’ve known it for some time. The cynicism comes from having seen earlier promise dashed. And the fatigue comes from the obvious fact that this has been going on for quite a while.

So, my guess is that many—perhaps most—people have stopped reading whatever news is coming from Iraq, except perhaps for headlines. If they do read it at all, they take any good news with a hefty (and perhaps fatal) grain of salt. And for the most part the MSM, for its very own reasons (previous biases, agendas, relative lack of “juiciness” to the stories of success, and reluctance to admit its own errors in prediction), tends to downplay the sort of stories Yon would like to see headlined.

The entire situation combines to foster the natural human tendency to hold onto our present opinions. Neither side, of course, is immune to this failing—and, no doubt, many will now hop on board in the comments section here and accuse me of doing exactly the same in overemphasizing the good news Yon and others report.

Changing one’s mind is not only difficult, it’s unusual—and sometimes can be threatening to others. I believe that’s one reason
my “change” story generates a fair amount of anger in some readers on the Left. And not just anger—actual disbelief. I’ve received many comments and emails accusing me of lying about my “change” experience. This initially puzzled me; one can disagree with me, or think I’m stupid or misguided, but lie? Why would I?

No reason, of course. But my accusers concoct the “lie” theory to explain what to them is clearly inexplicable, unheard of, absurd: the phenomenon of looking at new facts, or seeing them in a different way, and changing former perceptions about them. That this is seen as so extraordinary is a testament to how very difficult and unusual the process appears to be.

Now the military is asking the entire country to change its mind on a topic Yon describes as:

…a war of such strategic consequence that it will affect generations yet unborn—whether or not they want it to.

A difficult change to accomplish, indeed. And even if the MSM were to trumpet the news on its front pages, as Yon points out:

…once information is widely circulated, it has such formidable inertia that public opinion seems impervious to the corrective balm of simple and clear facts.

Of course, I’d like to see the MSM give it a try. A mind is a difficult thing to change, but not an impossible one.

[ADDENDUM: As if on cue, the AP decides to give it a try.]

25 Responses to “Perceptions about Iraq: why so impervious to change?”

  1. dougf Says:

    A mind is a difficult thing to change..

    Why not just call the MSM ”perfidious” and be done with it ? The Information Stream should NOT have a ‘mind’ of its own to change. It should be merely a distribution node whereby reality at one point is transferred to another point.

    If that is not the case it is not an Information Stream, it is a Propaganda Stream. Which is what we have ended up with.

    If I wanted to hear an editors personal views I could always contact him directly. But I don’t. And I don’t want him or his pet ‘journalist’ cramming their views down my throat under the false flag of ‘journalistic objectivity’.

    I have long since stopped making any excuses for the MSM. It does not deserve any explanations for its behavior and structural bias. Nor does it deserve a measured appeal to ‘change its mind’. An appeal by the way which will fail because the MSM does not view itself as needing to rethink its value system. It is YOU that are wrong if you cannot appreciate its ‘objectivity’.

    Silly neo-con.

  2. njcommuter Says:

    What we need are a few broadsheets not run by journalism majors and a collection of independent wire sources (not services) that don’t play fast and lose with the story, putting one spin in the top paragraphs and leaving the full facts for fifteenth, where it will be cut off by editors.

  3. sergey Says:

    This reminds me a short anecdote from Karel Chapek “In newspaper editor’s room: There are news that a vaccine against bubonic plague is discovered. Somebody knows, is our party against bubonic plague or supports it?”

  4. Trimegistus Says:

    It’s quite simple: journalists (and others on the Left) view military victory as morally wrong. It’s not just their Bush Derangement at work; they wouldn’t be entirely comfortable even with a Clinton-managed triumph (though they’d probably manage to keep their dismay to themselves). The logic works this way:

    1. War is bad. This is a universal axiom — no matter what the alternative, war is worse. This statement cannot be challenged, and any attempt to do so is proof that the questioner is evil.

    2. Therefore anything which might suggest otherwise (like, say, a nearly bloodless victory over a horrible, intractable foe) must be false.

    3. Therefore, either the U.S. cannot be winning in Iraq, or its success is proof that the U.S. is waging an immoral war.

    To the extent that it is physically possible for journalists to be patriotic, I think their constant harping on failure and casualties was sparked by a lingering belief that we were the “good guys” in Iraq. Because only victims can have moral worth, therefore failure and defeat is proof of virtue.

    Now that success seems to be within our grasp, expect a new round of atrocity stories to drive home the narrative that victory is proof of villainy.

  5. Laura Says:

    I think it’s best to just give us the facts as they’re seen without comments. For those of us close to the war, sometimes what’s reported is dead on and sometimes it doesn’t even bubble to the surface.

    I can’t speak to what the public thinks or feels because the whole war has been a mind boggling experience for us; you look around and don’t see the really bad stuff that we military families hear and read from the soldiers themselves.

    I think the whole execution of this war was flawed. Before you all pile on let me explain. I really do think that the architects of the war tried really hard to construct it and execute it in a way that didn’t engage the public, therefore the heart. It feels to me that it was intended NOT to show the coffins, to have the blogs (now shut down) or to have “we the people” deal with the real discomfort and sacrifice; just go shopping and “we” will take care of the rest.

    That’s a pretty cynical view I know, but I can only speak from my family’s perspective. Thanks for the post.

  6. Occam's Beard Says:

    FDR didn’t allow photos indicating any American deaths until 1943, when it was judged that the Allies were in the ascendant and would eventually win.

    Wise decision.

  7. Ymarsakar Says:

    Perceptions about Iraq: why so impervious to change?

    It is not that it is impervious to change, but rather people are misleading others on what those perceptions actually are. Without a correct view of what people believe and why they believe it, you cannot change them, Neo. No matter how skilled one is at propaganda and psychological warfare.

  8. Ymarsakar Says:

    If that is not the case it is not an Information Stream, it is a Propaganda Stream. Which is what we have ended up with.

    Propaganda tends to crop up always in war. It just has to be dealt with, permanently preferably.

  9. Dan Says:

    Rightly or wrongly, the MSM and its agents felt they had been manipulated prior to the invasion. Remember how joyfully the reporters climbed into the tanks and hummers on the border? They must have felt they were boarding the Higgins boats landing on Omaha Beach. Except they forgot this fact: wars are about fighting, and fighting means killing. Including the soldiers on our side. Not having the stomach to report the necessary sacrifices by our troops, they swiftly reversed support and every story coming out of Iraq contained the theme of victimization. No soldier dying could be heroic. The slaughter had to be stopped no matter what the cost. With very few exceptions, all reporting from Iraq contains the motif of the victim,

  10. Richard Aubrey Says:

    There are a great many people, not nutcases, not journalists, not politicians, who want us to lose.
    I’ve talked with them and there is no rationality. Eventually it gets to sputtering about Bush.
    If there is enough time, they’ll get confused, admitting something they denied earlier, denying something they admitted earlier, insisting that shari’a is not that bad (but the patriarchy is beyond evil).
    Simply no rationality.

    The only thing I can think of, not a very good one, is the primacy of feelings over thought means they have never been pushed to follow a logical train of thought past its first discomfort.
    And, as congenial as our society is for the middle class, their encounters with reality are rarely brisk enough to cause a rethinking of the entire subject of thinking, or blameshifting relieves them of the necessity.

    Or it’s BDS.

    But journalists lie even when they know they’re busted before they put finger to keyboard. See the reporting of the Limbaugh/Reid letter. Journos knew everybody knew exactly what happened, but they misrepresented it anyway. They proved once again to millions upon millions of people that they lie on purpose.
    One would think they’d figure out a way to only lie when their chances of getting caught were minimal.
    Can’t help themselves.

  11. douglas Says:

    Let’s also not forget about simple laziness. Many reports coming out of Iraq consist mainly of ‘some Iraqis said x civilians were killed in an American attack, including women and children’ (second hand through a ‘stringer), and later ‘the military spokesman had no information regarding any attack’. and it’s left at that. Too many people read that and assume that ‘civilians’ really were killed, and no background is given.

    No explanations of investigating the claims, general problems with veracity in the middle east, etc. Printing the truth is long gone, it’s been diluted to printing claims from both sides, no matter the likelihood of authenticity, and calling it a day, as if all sides were equally likely to be telling the truth. They do this knowing that what sticks is the emotional impact of ‘civilians killed’, true or not, and because of that, it’s also the lede for the story.

    Plain laziness, because after all, ‘fake but accurate’ is the new standard.

  12. logern Says:

    Don’t get your hopes up for a change of mind.

    The war will never be honorable regardless of the end, because the truth of going was spoiled in the beginning.

    IF YOU’RE UNABLE TO CONVINCE AND LEAD THE AMERICAN PEOPLE INTO WAR WITHOUT EXPLICIT EVIDENCE AND TRUTH, THEN YOU DON’T SHARE HONOR WHETHER YOU’RE SUCCESSFUL OR NOT.

    Explicit evidence and truth is very simple: Do you need an example of people yearning for democracy? Try Myanmar.

    Do you need a direct link to terror? Try Osama.

    Yes, Bush can rot in his mushroom cloud, yellow cake, and WMDs. Honor the soldiers for whatever happens, but no more than that is deserved.

  13. logern Says:

    …and if anyone wants to bring up Lincoln, I refer you to some of the excellent comments rebutting this ridiculous “Lincoln Lied and Thousands Died” post.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-swirsky/lincoln-lied-and-thousand_b_28920.html

  14. sergey Says:

    The truth is there were no mushrum clouds and any large-scale attack on American soil since the beginning of this war, so the main goal of launching it – prevention of such events – was achieved. One can argue that if there were no war, no attack would be anyway, but this is not a fact, but only a speculation. As things are now, such attack is clearly unadvantageous to Islamists, because it would shift balance of popular perception to massive retaliation. So this war works as a mighty deterrent, at least.

  15. Richard Aubrey Says:

    sergey.
    I wonder if OBL & Co. pictured the current situation as in any way likely.
    Probably not.
    So, what did they expect would happen and how has it come to not happening?

  16. sergey Says:

    OBL expected US withdrawal from all its military bases in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in Muslim world. This was the main declared goal of the attack. Obviously, he did not expect invasion in Afganistan and toppling of Taliban there.

  17. Xanthippas Says:

    The truth is there were no mushrum clouds and any large-scale attack on American soil since the beginning of this war, so the main goal of launching it – prevention of such events – was achieved.

    I have done my part in foiling the terrorists by wearing my underwear backwards. That there have been no more attacks is proof that my strategy is correct.

    Propaganda tends to crop up always in war.

    I have the distinct feeling that this was written with a complete and utter lack of irony.

  18. Xanthippas Says:

    There are a great many people, not nutcases, not journalists, not politicians, who want us to lose.
    I’ve talked with them and there is no rationality. Eventually it gets to sputtering about Bush.

    Translated: “A lot of people I talk to are against us being in Iraq and feel that Bush is to blame for much of what’s gone wrong in the war. Clearly, they only desire defeat for America.”

  19. stumbley Says:

    No, Xanthippas. Correct translation:

    “I’ve talked to a lot of people who hate Bush, and because of that, hate the war, Republicans, capitalism, and white males in general. They’re so wrapped up in hatred of traditional values and acceptance of post-modern claptrap, that they fail to see what made America great.”

  20. sergey Says:

    Al-Qaeda is overstretched and demoralized by Iraq war. They have no hope to win at battlefield. Their only hope is fatigue and discontent of American public by this war. They do apply, just as US anti-war crowd, a Vietnam template, and did it from the very beginning. So any major attack at American soil is for them not only disadvantegeous, but a mortal blow to their strategy. That makes US presence in Iraq a powerful deterrent to further attack on US civilians. Q.E.D. And your underwear, Xanthippa, obviously is not.

  21. Richard Aubrey Says:

    X. You back?
    Wrong again.
    Yawn

  22. Bugs Says:

    Two words: Confirmation Bias.

    Sorry, it’s human nature.

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    Nature they loathed, and next to nature, art;
    They strove with all, all worth more than their strife;
    They worshipped cash, and gave it all their heart,
    So cold they lived, and cold departed life.

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  25. Max Says:

    Perceptions about Iraq: why so impervious to change? is a quite interesting post but quite difficult to understand for me .

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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