Critical Thinking is Emotional Thinking: Reflections on a Post Truth Society by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

Over the past two years I have conducted interviews on fake news and misinformation with librarians, psychologist, journalist, and others for the Circulating Ideas podcast. I have done some writing related to our so-called “post truth” world as it relates to information literacy. To give myself some focus and to continue the conversations, I am sharing this post highlighting some of the things I have read and heard.

Reason and reasoning are not intended to find capital “T” truth.

For several decades, psychology and behavioral economics have shown us how our minds use shortcuts (heuristics) to make decisions. Psychologists such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman along with behavioral economists such as Dan Ariely have defined things like the availability heuristic, the anchoring effect, the framing effect, prior attitude effect, and disconfirmation bias among many. This body of research undermines the traditional assumption that rationality lies at the heart of human reason. In fact, after reading this work, one may conclude that the human brain is quite broken due to these systematic errors in judgment. But, the recent work of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber advances the interactionist perspective of reasoning. They argue that reason did not evolve to act like a calculating machine computing inputs and outputs. Instead, they argue that reason evolved to support group cohesion and group decision-making. Research has shown that we are much better at critiquing the arguments of others than we are at critiquing our own arguments. Research has also shown that groups of individuals with high degrees of trust and a diversity of opinions are excellent problem solvers. Individuals are great at creating reasons. We can justify almost anything. But it is the group interaction where arguments are challenged that knock down faulty reasons. This social reasoning is designed to allow trusting groups of individual to solve problems while still cohering around tribal identities and beliefs. The individual reasoner does not have to get it right. The process assumes that the group will get it right.

Our technology infrastructure and media culture plays into the worst parts of how reasoning works.

Unfortunately for us in the age of social media, the individual reasoner is not working in a healthy group context. Inflammatory headlines and impersonal arguments play into the weakest aspects of decision-making emphasizing the tribal desire to win the argument over seeking truth while also reinforcing existing beliefs.

Confirmation bias is not easily broken.

Knowledge is relative but it is not relative in a sense that knowledge does not exist. It is relative in that our existing knowledge acts as a reference point for the new information we encounter. Our existing knowledge grounds us in a worldview. There is no way around this. We experience, we learn, and we create reasons grounded in our historical moment, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender identity, etc. The beliefs and heuristics we hold help us make sense of the world, but they also prioritize the world in a self-referential way. If we tell ourselves that all Millennials are narcissistic because they were coddled by their parents, then we will surely find evidence to support this claim while ignoring counter evidence. In order to breakout of this, we must seek counter evidence and be open to changing our minds. Confirmation bias can be broken (it happens all the time), but the individual must have a disposition that is open to change. This disposition appears to require some level of reflection on one’s own worldview. Reflection is the only way we can recognize the origins of our own beliefs and also how our beliefs stand relative to the beliefs of others.

Topics have vectors.

Not only do our beliefs predispose us to have interest in different topics, but our very identities impact how we connect with information. When we study psychology, it is often useful to differentiate between the affective domain and the cognitive domain, but neuroscience demonstrates that this is largely an artificial distinction. Emotions, tribalism, and values all activate when we interact with new ideas. There isn’t a logic center that deals with facts. Critical thinking is emotional thinking. Psychologists such as Dan Kahan emphasize that identity-protective cognition is very important when it comes to argumentation. Identity-protective cognition is the tendency for individuals to preference information that connects in some way with who they believe themselves to be. This is why there are heated arguments about climate change but not about gravity. Topics related to politics, religion, and race (among many topics) are charged beyond simple fact-based analyses. Librarians often approach information literacy as if students are analytical machines with a a neutral starting point, when we should be emphasizing the idea that we carry our own biases to our research.

Rebounds effects are real.

Beliefs are amazingly resilient and many well-intentioned efforts to seek truth can go wrong. The seminal 1979 study by Lord, Ross, and Lepper brought the term “rebound effect” to the forefront. When individuals hold strong beliefs on a topic, arguing with them can actually strengthen their existing views. Beliefs can change through argument but even after they move they can return and become more entrenched.

The desire to compromise and find common ground requires a foundation of trust.

As Mercier and Sperber show, reason operates best when there is trust between groups of people. This allows individuals to safely challenge ideas while letting go of failing ideas. Trust removes the tribalism and lessons the impact of identity-protective cognition. This trust is an emotional prerequisite to common ground.

The poison of skepticism leaves nothing.

I worry that the highly-polarized discourse in our society is making us all skeptical in an unhealthy way. We believe nothing. Entire information sources are dismissed as “biased.” The New York Times is liberal, and The Wall Street Journal is conservative. As librarians, we have moved toward this overly-skeptical stance in some instances. ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy’s frame “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” sets authority within a relativistic stance that opens the door for this kind of skepticism. The Framework does not take a stance that one kind of authority is preferenced over another. The Critical Information Literacy movement has transformed our practice as it challenges us to think about the power dynamics behind our information ecosystem. I have found great value in #CritLib discussions, but we must acknowledge that a form of skepticism exists at the center of #CritLib. I think that the Framework and #CriLlib are very important to our profession, but as librarians, it is easier for us to be skeptical without advocating for a positive epistemological stance. Librarians such as Bill Badke, Beth McDonough, and Lane Wilkinson have pushed us to consider our stances toward a more balanced and dynamic cognitive authority. It does seem clear that librarians and libraries have a role to play in making things better in this ‘post-truth’ moment.

Circulating Ideas Podcast series on Fake News & Libraries

Fake News, Community Journalism, and Libraries, Circulating Ideas episode 143, David Bears

Fake News, Journalists, & Librarians: The Know News Symposium, Circulating Ideas episode 141.

Fake News, Higher Education, and Librarianship, Circulating Ideas episode 139, Nicole Cook

Fake News and Social Media Analytics, Circulating Ideas episode 123: Nathan Carpenter. 

Fake News and the Psychology of the Brain, Circulating Ideas episode 116: Laura Lauzen-Collins

Fake News, Information Literacy and Teaching College Students, Circulating Ideas episode 113: William Badke.

Fake News, Journalism and Libraries, Circulating Ideas episode 108 Interview with Jeremy Shermak.

Fake News, Information Literacy and Epistemology, Circulating Ideas episode 104 Interview with Lane Wilkinson.


Badke, Bill (2015). Expertise and authority in an age of crowdsourcing. In T. A. Swanson and H. Jagman (eds), Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students to Think About Information (pp. 191-216). Chicago: the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Davidson, Richard J., & Begley, Sharon. (2013). The emotional life of your brain. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Kahan, Dan M. (2017). Misconceptions, misinformation, and the logic of identity-protective cognition. Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper Series No. 164; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 605; Yale Law and Economics Research Paper No. 575.

Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Gurioux.

Kahneman, Daniel and Amos Tversky (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica 47(2) pp. 263-291. Available at;

Lewis, Michael (2017). The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World. London: Penguin Books.

Lord, Charles, G., Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effect on prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(11) pp. 2098-2109.

Mercier, Hugo, and Dan Sperber (2018). The enigma of reason: A new theory of human understanding. New York: Penguin.

McDonough, Beth (2015). Beyond tools and skills: Putting information back into information literacy. In T. A. Swanson and H. Jagman (eds), Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students to Think About Information (pp. 37-52). Chicago: the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Sweet, Christopher A., Jeremy L. Shermak, & Troy A. Swanson (2018). “You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself”: Information Literacy and ‘Post-Truth’ Skepticism. In A. Baer, E. Cahoy, & R. Schroeder (Eds.), Libraries Promoting Reflective Dialogue in a Time of Political Polarization. Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries. (forthcoming)

Wilkinson, Lane (2015). Theories of knowledge in library and information science. In T. A. Swanson and H. Jagman (eds), Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students to Think About Information (pp. 13-36). Chicago: the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the co-editor of the recent book from ACRL, Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think About Information. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.