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Opinion

6 Ways to Have Agency — and Harness the Facts — in the Post-Truth Era

Who among us could have imagined the post-truth era?

Yet, when ‘alternative facts’ abound, when deception and lies are shrugged off as just spin, when the U.S. president has made tens of thousands of proven false or misleading statements, when fake news penetrates YouTube and Facebook, and then spreads insidiously across the internet, we can no longer deny it. The post-truth era is real — and has tragic consequences.

The good news is we’re certainly not helpless. We don’t have to feel vulnerable, duped, or exploited. By having agency, we can harness the facts — and not just in politics, the news, or social media, but also in our everyday lives and workplaces, where powerful people, ideas, and messages can unduly influence us, too.

Like it or not, we often adopt the views of those we perceive as strong, attractive, confident, or resolute. And highly polished or emotional messaging frequently sways and seduces us. That’s because politicians, marketers, business leaders, and others are adept at reading us — recognizing our wants and needs, and then acting (or acting as if) to meet them.

And that’s where agency comes in.

The power of agency

Now you’re probably asking, What is agency, anyway?

Agency may be a simple word, but in psychology and social science, it has a profound impact on our lives.

In the real world, agency is our capacity to think and act independently, and to make free, autonomous choices. It’s our ability to function as an effectual agent for ourselves — to reason and behave in ways that benefit not only ourselves, but also the people we care about. It allows us to trust our instincts, to thoughtfully respond (rather than just react) to things, and to judiciously evaluate others. And it helps us conquer obstacles, make effective decisions, and create a life on our own terms.

But it’s not as simple as it may sound. Just ask Mike.

The hypnotist and the financier

A smart, self-assured guy in his early fifties, Mike has been around the block in life, and takes pride in being his own man. He has agency, to be sure, and likewise, has never seen himself as unwise or gullible. But that changed one night on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.

“A hypnotist got me,” Mike admits sheepishly. “My wife and I went to his show after dinner. He was a heck of a performer and a smooth operator, and before long, he managed to get me up on stage. Pretty quickly, I was like putty in his hands, seeming to robotically respond to his every whim. When we got back to our cabin, my wife said I was acting clueless. And me? I didn’t recognize myself. What a sucker.”

More seriously, and with a lot more than his ego on the line, Mike would later be led into a bad financial investment. “In looking back, I trusted the guy too fast,” he explains. “Yes, he was slick, but pretenses aside, he struck me as a smart guy and a savvy financier. Plus he had a sincerity about him, like he really had my best interests at heart.”

Mike soon learned that the man’s advice was anything but legit. And much to his chagrin, he had to face the music: He had been played like a fiddle.

Mike’s experiences with the hypnotist and particularly the financier got him questioning himself: Am I actually the smart, strong-minded guy I’ve always professed to be?

The short answer: Yes.

But even people with agency can be susceptible to smooth operators and slick presentations. It happens less often, though, because they possess two key differences.

Acknowledgment and action

People with agency acknowledge their own vulnerabilities and, even more important, take appropriate action.

They look within themselves to study their tendencies and patterns. (“When do I seem to be most impressionable? When I’m feeling anxious or afraid? When I’m really tired or hungry? When I’m being put on the spot? When I’m with people above me in rank or stature?”) They watch for their weak spots. They show a healthy skepticism. They question things that appear too good to be true. And they listen to their gut.

At the same time, it’s important to note that people with agency aren’t close-minded or oppositional. They know that, to grow and evolve as human beings, it’s critical to be open to new and different ideas, people, situations, and ways of thinking. It’s just that they do so with their eyes and ears wide open.

Want to have agency yourself? Or wish you had more of it? Try these seven tips.

1. Hit the pause button.

If something isn’t adding up, start by slowing down, taking a deep breath, and if possible, walking away for a while. You’ll think more clearly and independently whenever you can hit the pause button.

2. Consider what you’ve just read or heard.

Mull things over in your head. Then consider how they line up with who you are, what you stand for, and how you genuinely want to participate in the world.

3. Be a fact-checker.

“Facts are stubborn things,” said Founding Father John Adams. So pursue them methodically and tenaciously, as if you’re a fact-checker at a world-class newspaper or magazine. Contact real people in the know. Search for credible data on the web. Check with independent sources. And turn to trusted friends or colleagues to see what they think.

4. Ask probing questions.

Pretend you’re a top investigative journalist or talk-show host, and ask people probing questions that readily build on one another. For instance, in our line of work, we often start out with something like “That’s interesting. How did you arrive at that idea? And what steps did you take to get there?” What we’re looking for is a thought process or a set of actions that seems sensible and authentic.

5. Check your emotions at the door.

When you’re in a highly emotional state — angry, aroused, afraid, etc. — you’re apt to lose logic, become impulsive, and make poor or stupid decisions. It’s not easy or natural to keep your emotions in check, but you can at least aspire to it when it’d be helpful to you.

6. Know your personality.

Some personality types are more at risk for easily believing or conforming to others. If you know that you’re a people-pleaser or, like Mike, a harmonizer, consciously work at improving your BS detector.

Finally, know that balance is key. Of course, you want to engage with the world, to take part in politics or popular culture, to be liked and accepted by others, and sometimes to just feel free and easy. And that’s all perfectly right and good.

But, particularly in the post-truth era, you must also be able to think and act independently, and to make your own free choices. In this way, you will have agency — and harness the facts.

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