If you have not yet figured it out, this notion of “alternative facts” intrigues me.
(This is my third blog about it!) I think it is because as a mediator, I witness “alternative facts” quite frequently. No party is “lying” to me; in telling her story to me, she is simply telling me the “facts” as she sees them- her reality.
In an effort to put clarity on this topic, The Conversation posted (on March 22, 2017) an article entitled, “‘Alternative facts’: A psychiatrist’s guide to twisted relationships to truth” by Ronald W. Pies, professor of Psychiatry at both SUNY Upstate Medical University and at Tufts University School of Medicine.
In very easy to understand terms, Professor Pies makes the distinction between a lie and a falsehood. A lie has some intent behind it: a person makes a statement knowing it to be untrue. She deliberately and intentionally mispresents a fact. Lawyers would label it intentional misrepresentation if not fraud. In contrast is a “falsehood” in which a person makes a statement believing it to be true because that person is not aware of the true facts or refuses to believe the facts that have been conveyed to her. (Id. at 1.) These contrasts are the jumping off point:
Some people who voice falsehoods appear incapable of distinguishing real from unreal, or truth from fiction, yet are sincerely convinced their worldview is absolutely correct. And this is our entree into the psychiatric literature. (Id. at 2.)
In the world of psychiatry, a person’s distortions of reality can range from mild to severe:
On the milder end, we have what psychiatrists call over-valued ideas. These are very strongly held convictions that are at odds with what most people in the person’s culture believe, but which are not bizarre, incomprehensible or patently impossible. A passionately held belief that vaccinations cause autism might qualify as an over-valued idea: it’s not scientifically correct, but it’s not utterly beyond the realm of possibility.
On the severe end of the continuum are delusions. These are strongly held, completely inflexible beliefs that are not altered at all by information, and which are clearly false or impossible. Importantly, delusions are not explained by the person’s culture, religious beliefs or ethnicity. A patient who inflexibly believes that Vladimir Putin has personally implanted an electrode in his brain in order to control his thoughts would qualify as delusional. When the patient expresses this belief, he or she is not lying or trying to deceive the listener. It is a sincerely held belief, but still a falsehood. (Id. at 2-3.)
“Falsehoods” can be categorized as well. They are not made just by those with disorders. Normal folks can make them due to “false memories” in which we are certain we did something such as mail a letter or make a phone call to invite a friend to an event, when, in actuality, we did not do so. Yet, we sincerely and truly believe that we did because of our false memory. (Id. at 3.)
Then there is also “confabulation” in which we spontaneously produce quite detailed false memories. The memory may be about anything, be it the most mundane or extraordinary of events. (Id.) The author notes that confabulation often occurs in those who have incurred severe brain damage or strokes.
And then… there is outright lying or what the author calls pathological lying. Its elements include:
• A marked tendency to lie, often as a defensive attempt to avoid consequences. The person may experience a “high” from this imaginative story-telling.
• The lies are quite dazzling or fantastical, though they may contain truthful elements. Often, the lies may capture considerable public attention.
• The lies tend to present the person in a positive light, and may be an expression of an underlying character trait, such as pathological narcissism. However, the lies in PF usually go beyond the more “believable” stories of persons with narcissistic traits. (Id. at 3.)
In concluding the article, Professor Pies asks an interesting question: do we really care about what is the actual truth? In our “post-truth era”, do we care what is reality and what is fiction? The one good thing about alternative facts, is that it allows the parties to come up with a narrative, a reality, that each can live with. (Id. at 4.)
And… we have all seen this happen. Take a jury trial… the plaintiff tells her version of what happened and the defendant tells her version of what happened. Each are different. The jury then morphs the two versions together into narrative that it, as a body, can make sense of and accept, to render a verdict.
And… the same happens at mediation. The parties, telling different versions of the events, use alternative facts to make the settlement options palpable; like a jury, the parties must come up with a third narrative that each can “live with” to accept a settlement that is not exactly on the terms hoped for when they walked into the mediation.
So… I guess, “alternative facts” have some value if not “truths” to them.
…. Just something to think about.
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