The Truth About the Post-Truth World (And Why Businesses Should Care)



Continuing with a longstanding tradition, the Oxford Dictionary has chosen 2016’s word of the year: post-truth.

Sound nonsensical? That’s actually kind of the point.

Post-truth, according to Oxford, is, “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’”

In a year punctuated by a bitter American election and mind-boggling Brexit vote, that sounds about right, doesn’t it? In both cases, the masses made decisions spurred not by facts but feelings, backed by a surge sharing of fake news on social media. When confronted with information that directly contradicted their feelings, few were moved to change their positions. It was never about the truth. It was about what they felt was true.

In fairness, though 2016 may stand out as an extreme manifestation of such decision making, it’s actually far from a novel social paradigm. And frankly, it’s not really a cultural thing. It’s literally hardwired into our brains, no matter how cool and analytical we might think ourselves.

It’s Science, Not Society

Well before the 2008 election, American clinical and political psychologist and Professor in the Department of Psychology and Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Emory University conducted a study examining the neural patterns exhibited by partisan and neutral voters when presented with conflicting information about candidates on both sides of the aisle. The goal was to see how the brain processed such contradictions — what parts of the brain were stimulated.

In the end, it was the sections governing emotion that lit up like a Christmas tree. As Westen explains in his book The Political Brain:

The political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision. The partisans in our study were, on average, bright, educated, and politically aware. They were not the voters who think “Alito” is an Italian pastry, the kind of voters who have raised so many alarm calls among political scientists and pundits.

And yet they thought with their guts.

This is not a phenomena reserved to political decision making, either. In fact, research suggests that emotions not only drive our decision making, but that they are essential to it.

Around the same time that Westen released his book, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy and head of the Brain and Creativity Institute Dr. Antonio Damasio was conducting a study of patients who had experienced significant trauma to the areas of the brain which regulate emotion. The subjects were all quite intelligent and capable of organizing and analyzing information, but they struggled to make even the smallest of decisions. Why? Without emotion establishing the framework for parsing that information, they were incapable of making up their minds.

His research explained that this is literally a function of how our brains are structured. In his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Damasio writes:

[H]uman reason depends on several brain systems, working in concert across many levels of neuronal organization, rather than on a single brain center. Both “high-level” and “low-level” brain regions, from the prefrontal cortices to the hypothalamus and brain stem, cooperate in the making of reason.

The lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings, along with the body functions necessary for an organism’s survival. In turn, these lower levels maintain direct and mutual relationships with virtually every bodily organ, thus placing the body directly within the chain of operations that generate the highest reaches of reasoning, decision making, and, by extension, social behavior and creativity. Emotion, feeling, and biological regulation all play a role in human reason. The lowly orders of our organism are in the loop of high reason.

What Damasio found is that without access to the systems which regulate emotion, the brain literally cannot engage in effective reasoning to a conclusive end. No emotion? No ability to decide.

In other words, this whole idea of being in a “post-truth” world is little more than hype. This is not a cultural trend. This is biology.

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Everything Old is New Again

It’s not like we haven’t known this for years. Research from Caroline Winnett and Andrew Pohlmann of The Nielsen Company suggests that 90% of all consumer purchasing decisions are made subconsciously. Companies realized that a long time ago, and have built empires on the notion. It’s no accident that some of the most successful brands in the world are those that sell an experience in the shape of a product.

Pouyan Salehi of PersistIQ explains this concept through the lens of Starbucks:

They’re selling more than coffee. They’re selling familiarity. People won’t risk getting sub-par coffee at a place they don’t know; they know exactly what they will get from Starbucks.

They’re selling social acceptance. Everyone goes there; it must be the cool thing to do.

They’re selling a “third place” atmosphere. People are tired of working, but don’t want to go home yet, so they go to a “third place” where they can lounge with their friends or cuddle up with a book.

This is the vision Starbuck’s CEO had when he took the throne, and has stood on his head to bring that vision to fruition.

But more than anything, they are selling an experience. When you go to a Starbucks, you are getting the experience of being in a European coffee bistro, not just an ordinary café. That’s how it was conceptualized by the founders from its inception.

The friendly baristas, the European atmosphere, the smell of fresh grinds all culminate into an experience like nothing else. That’s how you create a demand for your product. That’s how you sell coffee without selling coffee.

But this isn’t just about a few bucks on a cup of coffee. Even the biggest financial purchases we make are driven by emotion.

Take, for example, buying a house. It’s one of the single biggest investments people make during the course of their life, and an incredibly complex one at that. There are dozens of variables to be considered, ranging from price to location to space to features. And yet…

“Buying a house is an inherently emotional investment,” explains Oren Jacobson, Director of Strategic Marketing for new home sales training and management firm New Home Star. “The house you buy will become the home where you and loved ones will be making memories for years to come. Of course emotions are going to play a central role in such a purchase. As a result, our sales agents are trained to sort of serve as psychologists. Our job is to help people make the decision that’s right for them, and the best way to do that is to help them understand the decision in terms of what’s most important to them.”

The influence of emotion on purchasing decisions isn’t unique to consumers, either. As Principal Analyst of Futurum Research and CEO of Broadsuite Media Group Daniel Newman writes for Forbes:

In a recent study performed by the CEB, which examined the impact of personal emotions on B2B purchases, it was found that 71% of buyers who see a personal value in a B2B purchase will end up buying the product or service. In fact, personal value had two times the impact on the buyer than business impact did. In short, the survey found that without question personal value, perhaps better read emotional value overwhelmingly outweighed logic and reason in driving purchase decisions.

The data in this study shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody, but what it should do is come as an important reminder to people that the reasons that people buy are usually attached much closer to their emotional center than their rational thinking. And while buyers will often push hard for specifications, data sheets and statistics in order to help them justify a buying decision, more often than not these requests are really their way of telling you that they are not yet seeing the personal value in the product being sold to them.

When you boil it all down, ultimately corporate buyers are people and that is probably the most significant driver of this bleeding of personal emotion into the B2B purchase. No matter how much as individuals we try to put our “Company” hat on and tow the company line, we allow our personal feelings to enter the buyer’s journey and influence the way we make purchases.

So no, we’re not entering some new era where facts don’t matter. There was no big change in how we make decisions. We have always prioritized emotions over logic.

But that said, how those emotions are being influenced has changed. Illustrating this is a conversation adjacent to the post-truth discussion: the rise of fake news.

New Look, New Reach

Social media has a lot of benefits, but easily identifying reliable information is not one of them. Fake news has always been an issue for sites like Facebook, where engagement levels prioritizes the visibility of content in the all important newsfeed. It doesn’t matter if the content is truthful or not. It matters how people interact with it.

The fake news problem came to a boil during this year’s election, though. This wasn’t just about someone mistaking an article from The Onion as fact. These were lies dressed up to look like legitimate news, and people fell for it. Hard. As Buzzfeed reports:

In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others, a BuzzFeed News analysis has found.

During these critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Where was this fake news coming from? Some of it was generated by folks seeking to gain revenue from advertising on well-trafficked sites, many of which were based overseas. Researchers at the Foreign Policy Institute have uncovered evidence that a large amount of propaganda was pushed by Russian operatives attempting to influence the election’s outcome. In other cases, sloppy reporting gave fake stories a broader platform on legitimate news sites.

Facebook and Google have both taken steps since the election to try to crack down on the glut of fake news. Given that 44% of American adults get their news from Facebook, such changes are certainly crucial, particularly in a world where critical literacy has been deprioritized in American curriculum. While folks like to joke about older relatives sharing blatantly false news as though it were gospel, a recent study from Stanford University found that 82% of students can’t tell the difference between fake and real news, either.

But how did we get here? How did we get to a point where fake news is so easily believed that it may have swayed a presidential election? How did we get to a point where fake news is so widely accepted that a young man, just yesterday, brought an assault rifle into a DC pizzeria seeking to take down a Clinton-sponsored child sex ring that never existed?

An article from Vox inadvertently hits the nail on the head:

A big problem here is that the internet has broken down the traditional distinction between professional news-gathering and amateur rumor-mongering. On the internet, the “Denver Guardian” — a fake news site designed to look like a real Colorado newspaper — can reach a wide audience as easily as real news organizations like the Denver Post, the New York Times, and Fox News.

Did you catch that?


We may not live in a post-truth era in the way that it’s being described, but we are living in an era where design has given far more people the ability to influence the emotions that have always driven our efforts at reasoning. In the past, building a professional looking website was difficult and costly. Today, you can set something up in under an hour using platforms like WordPress and Wix. That’s not going away anytime soon. If anything, such access will likely become more affordable and easier to manipulate over time.

That’s not going to help an already complicated fight against the proliferation of fake news, but for businesses, it should serve as a reminder of how important web design is to building and growing a brand.

Think about it: minimal investment in web design facilitated the rapid rise of a sprawling web of profitable fake news sites. It afforded them the facade of credibility necessary to drive social engagement with their content. While things like confirmation bias and an intensely polarized political climate certainly contributed to some extent, odds are the same content in a white font on a black page with an angelfire url would never have been circulated as widely as the news that made the rounds over the course of this year’s presidential election. They had the right look. That’s all it took.

Most brands, of course, are operating under a very different business model and offer a very different message. But if design played so significant a role under a model where the ask of the consumer was low, imagine the impact it can have on a consumer being asked to pay for something.

Research suggests that 94% of first impressions of a brand are driven by design, and that 75% of whether or not a website is considered credible is based on aesthetics. It’s estimated that slow loading times — often a function of poor design — costs global retailers $2.6 billion every year. That issue is compounded when you consider that 88% of consumers will not visit a site again after a bad experience. And if you don’t think you have an issue with web design, odds are you’re wrong. According to a report from the Society of Digital Agencies, 77% of agencies identify weak web design as the most significant weakness in their clients’ brands.

The return on investing in website design can be substantial. Improved SEO, lower bounce rates, and higher conversion rates all contribute to the bottom line. Case studies abound on the subject, but according to Forrester, most brands see returns between 70% and 500% after a website redesign.

And all of that makes sense if you think about this “new” post-truth reality that has always been. Our decisions are driven by emotions. Our emotions are often generated by experiences. In today’s world, our experiences are often digital and shaped, necessarily, by design. It’s the same game it’s always been. Design is just more important than ever.

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