Fooled by Emotional Response

By now, many of you have probably heard of the bizarre, surreal, and disturbing story of Notre Dame Linebacker Manti Teo, who had apparently overcome the death of his grandmother and girlfriend to have a magical senior season for the Fighting Irish, leading them to the championship game.

His girlfriend never existed.  The debate will continue to rage whether or not Teo is a victim or a fraudulent perpetuator of a poignant story until the truth–if it’s possible to obtain–surfaces.

Here’s the problem–we are all blinded, to some extent, by what I think is our natural disposition to cling to stories and emotion when seeking the truth and making decisions.   Danny Coyle, the co-author of “The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France,” reinforces this notion in the New York Times:

Stories are the strongest drug, for both audience and storyteller. They disarm our natural defenses; they cause us to ignore larger facts that seem titanically obvious in retrospect. What’s more, the story elevates the hero above the rest of us, so that he no longer needs to play by the normal rules. Fatally, inevitably, he begins to believe his own myth.

I don’t believe Manti Teo would have been a Heisman Trophy finalist if not for the narrative of his strong character and overcoming adversity.   Whether or not he was complicit in the creation of his own myth is still up in the air, but I find it hard to believe he is a victim.  How did it take so long for so many falsehoods to be finally revealed?  How could major media outlets, including Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and the Los Angeles Times, continue to fuel the story?  According to Deadspin’s incredible piece of investigative journalism:

 There was no Lennay Kekua. Lennay Kekua did not meet Manti Te’o after the Stanford game in 2009. Lennay Kekua did not attend Stanford. Lennay Kekua never visited Manti Te’o in Hawaii. Lennay Kekua was not in a car accident. Lennay Kekua did not talk to Manti Te’o every night on the telephone…Her brother, Koa, did not inform Manti Te’o that she was dead. Koa did not exist. Her funeral did not take place in Carson, Calif., and her casket was not closed at 9 a.m. exactly. She was not laid to rest.  Lennay Kekua’s last words to Manti Te’o were not “I love you.”

Everyone wanted to believe the emotional tale, apparently, and countless journalists failed to do the logical work to confirm the truth.  Where else have we recently seen this dynamic played out?  Lance Armstrong, who we thought was a “clean” athlete who overcame cancer to win the Tour de France and then spearheaded the immensely popular Livestrong campaign.  Greg Mortensen of Three Cups of Tea lore, who falsified large chunks of his story about building schools in impoverished areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While there is no false hero involved, the reaction to the horrible Sandy Hook tragedy is also a case of emotional response.  Does it feel right to pass many more gun laws?  Absolutely.  Is it logical, based on evidence relating to violent crime and gun statistics?  I’m uncertain.  After all, if we truly have a gun control crisis, how come President Obama didn’t push for reform during the beginning of his first term?  With so many guns in the hands of American citizens and gun violence significantly lower than it was during the 1980s and 1990s (remember, we had an Assault Weapons ban from 1994-2004), I wish it were easier for citizens and the government to find logical solutions with proven effects to decrease gun violence. 

My heart and its attachment to stories and emotion on the heels of Sandy Hook hopes that tighter gun laws will have a real effect on lowering violent crime.  But my head and its desire to seek truth through logic is conflicted.

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