Stephen Colbert, Scientific Pioneer: The Truth in ‘Truthiness’

In a recent post, I explored what I called the science of “truthiness”: How we can come to understand the denial of science, on issues like global warming, by examining the underlying psychology of political conservatism itself.

But I must confess that in that item, I was relying on a fairly clichéd understanding of the word “truthiness.” Since it was first coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005, the term has taken on a massive life of its own — coming to mean, in its broadest sense, the problem of people making up their own reality, one just “truthy” enough that they actually believe it.

Frankly, though, most of us only have a “truthy” sense of what “truthiness” actually meant in its original formulation.

That’s why, when I went back and re-watched the original Colbert truthiness segment, I was so stunned. After a year spent researching the psychology of the right for my book The Republican Brain, Colbert’s words took on dramatic new meaning for me. Frankly, it now seems to me that in some ways, Colbert was ahead of the science on this matter — anticipating much of what we are only now coming to know.


Truthiness, as defined by Colbert in the segment, is the quality of knowing something in your gut, or your heart, as opposed to in your head. “I don’t trust books. They’re all facts, no heart,” as Colbert put it. He added: “We are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.” Later, Colbert made fun of George W. Bush’s disastrous nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, a move Bush defended by saying, “I know her heart.”

In other words, in its original definition, “truthiness” was really about the power of emotion in guiding reasoning and our beliefs — and trumping calmer, more rational reflection. Later, Colbert elaborated:

Truthiness is, ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.

The Truth in “Truthy”

With such words, Colbert didn’t just diagnose a deep malady in American political discourse. He also, knowingly or otherwise, used phrases (“it’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true”) that not only reflected but in some cases anticipated research results in psychology and neuroscience — results on biased reasoning, and especially on the differences between liberals and conservatives.


What that means is that we can now go a long way towards restating Colbert’s lament about “truthiness” in scientific terms.

First, take the role of emotions in reasoning. In this respect, Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahnemann’s bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow resonates strongly with Colbert’s truthiness segment. Kahnemann explains how the brain processes information using two systems — the rapid and emotional System 1, and the slower, more reflective System 2. What’s important about this is that System 1 often guides and even trumps system 2. These are the cases in which we think with our guts, or our hearts, rather than our heads, so to speak.

In fact, the emerging science of motivated reasoning takes this realization as its core premise in explaining the causes of human bias. The idea is that before we’re even consciously aware of it (and some of us never are), System 1 has emotionally tagged and guided our responses to the world, driving us to interpret reality in a selfish or self serving manner. Even when we later proceed to “reason” — to make arguments to support what we think, drawing on System 2 — it’s really in service of this emotional master.

In other words, reason is indeed slave to the passions. In a lecture I recently gave at the Harvard Law School, I explain how this leads us to commit all kinds of errors and reasoning fallacies — and also, more importantly, to be able to detect them in others far better than in ourselves.

The Right and the Gut

But let’s face it: Colbert wasn’t being entirely bipartisan in his original description of “truthiness.” And frankly, neither is the growing body of science on the matter. When it comes to going on your gut responses — or perhaps privileging quick, economical thinking — there is recent research suggesting that this is more strongly associated with political conservatism than with liberalism. This is the area where, most of all, Colbert seems to have prescient.


Consider, for instance, the just published drunkenness and politics study, in which bar patrons who were more drunk gave more conservative answers on a political questionnaire, whether or not they claimed to be liberal or conservative. Now, I know this study is mainly the kind of thing that people crack jokes about (some good ones, too). And I know it’s only one study. Still, it is less crazy than you may think. There is a body of research, discussed here, suggesting that conservatism tends to be more associated with quick, instinctive reactions to reality, whereas liberalism is more about making things complex and nuanced; shades of gray rather than black and white.

That’s why altering your cognitive state to favor quick and economical thinking — whether through drunkenness, stress, time pressure, or something called cognitive load — may privilege conservatism over liberalism, on average. Liberal patterns of thinking appear to involve making matters complicated — not always a good thing, incidentally, especially in situations where it is important to make up your mind and take prompt action. So no wonder that several studies show that you can make liberals more conservative if you block their ability to, essentially, complexify and nuance things — for instance, by putting them under time or cognitive pressures.

In terms of gut thinking, there’s also another sense in which Colbert foresaw the emerging science of politics. Much recent research associates political conservatism with a stronger sensitivity to the emotion of disgust. In one telling 2011 experiment, for instance, subjects who were asked to use a hand wipe before answering questions, or answer them near a hand sanitizer, gave more politically conservative answers.

It is easy to see a role for disgust sensitivity in conservative views on issues like gay marriage and contraception. But even beyond that — and as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explained to me recently — conservatives may literally find liberals disgusting, revolting. They may be repelled by us in their guts long before they consider us in their heads.

The Gut in the Brain

In the original truthiness segment, Colbert joked that there are “more nerve endings in your stomach than in your head.” In reality, of course, all of these processes are governed by the brain — but they may be principally governed by different parts of it. And since he originally launched the word “truthiness” into the world, new cognitive neuroscience research also gives credence to Colbert’s assertion.

In one study, for instance, liberals showed more activity than conservatives in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain involved in error detecting and changing habitual patterns of responding — in other words, overriding the gut, or the instincts, and switching to more measured, System 2 behaviors. As Kahnemann puts it in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “A brain region known to be associated with conflict and self-control (the anterior cingulate) was more active when subjects did not do what comes naturally…. Resisting the inclination of System 1 apparently involves conflict.”

Conservatives, meanwhile, were shown in one study to have more gray matter, on average, in the right amygdala, a part of the emotional brain involved in detecting fear and threat and driving automatic, life preserving patterns of responding. Kahnemann again: “The amygdala is accessed very rapidly by emotional stimuli — and it is a likely suspect for involvement in System 1.”

The actual brain scans of liberals and conservatives are the newest and most cutting edge wave of the science, and a long string of caveats accompany them. They should be taken cautiously, not as gospel truth (not with the gut). However, they’re not inconsistent with other research on the different patterns of thinking between the average liberal, and the average conservative.

Truthiness Triumphant

What does this mean? Simply put, Colbert may have been much more right than he knew in 2005. Or perhaps, as an acute observer of the political scene, he could simply pick up things that, in the lab, later wound up being substantiated.

In any event, what all this suggests is that even among the very few cultural memes that go on to enjoy a kind of immortality, Colbert’s “truthiness” holds a unique place. Not only does it make you laugh; it anticipates much of what we are only now coming to know — scientifically.

Chris is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine, senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and author of the books The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain. This piece was originally published at the Huffington Post and was re-printed with permission from the author.