Politicians have a poor reputation for truthfulness. Some say former US President Donald Trump made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims during his 4 years in office.
Yet they were all highly successful, at least for a while, and their supporters never seemd to care about their mendacity. Why is this?
Our brains make us believers
According to a recent article in the Washington Post, and re-published in the Sydney Morning Herald, we can find it hard to recognise a lie because of how our brains work.
Our senses bombard our brains with sights, sounds and smells, and the external world requires our brains to make all sorts of decisions in rapid time. We simply don’t have time to pay attention to everything, and most decisions have to be made too quickly to allow careful assessment.
So our brains have developed heuristics, which are basically “rules of thumb”, shortcuts that help us arrive at decisions quickly and reliably, using intuitive thinking. This allows our brains to be freer to address those matters which require more thought.
These heuristics can be very effective. For example, studies show that in emergencies, more experienced doctors intuitively came to better decisions more quickly than younger doctors who followed an analytical process.
And so our brains tend to believe what we hear if it is plausible, because it is less work for our brains and most of what we hear is likely to be true.
Making it easier to believe
We are especially likely to believe what we are told if:
- It fits our own worldview. It is much easier for our brains to assimilate new information if it fits our existing mental models, and much more comfortable for us. Those with strong religious or political (or other) beliefs may be especially prone to this confirmation bias.
- If the information is repeated. Repetition can make even false information more familiar and thus more believable.
- If the information comes in an emotional story. Stories which appeal to our emotions are much more attractive than cold facts. Stories can support the good but can also be dangerous and misleading. Demonising opponents can promote the strong emotion of fear.
- Whatever we hear first. Once we hear something, it is hard to replace that idea with an alternative idea, even if the first idea is shown to be false. The false idea remains in the brain and can be more enduring than the truth.
We can see this working out
Unfortunately, politicians and the media can take advantage of our trust and willingness to believe what we are told, and feed us misinformation that colours our choices.
US politics shows how these things can work out in practice. On the night of the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump claimed that the election had been “stolen”. He offered no evidence. There wasn’t even reasonable time for him to have seen any evidence if it existed. And he continued to repeat the claim, as did some of the media.
Yet still the claims are believed by many. They were repeated and are still being repeated. The claims fit some people’s worldview. They have been reinforced by demonising opponents with scare words like “socialist” and “woke”.
In the end, many people who didn’t believe the claims at first eventually found themselves giving in.
Both sides of politics can use these methods, but it seems to me that the progressive side isn’t as blatant or deceptive.
It’s not just politics
Advertising can use some of the same techniques. Years ago advertising tended to give facts about the product. But now it is more likely to sell an emotion (good times or a loving family), play on our anxieties (offering simple choices in a confusing time), reinforce attitudes or worldview (materialism or patriotism) or simply repeat the name ( sponsor’s names on sport uniforms).
Unfortunately, religion too can use fear of hell, punishment or ostracism to keep people in the fold. And western religion has tended to soften and even oppose the strong teachings of Jesus on materialism, caring for the poor and serving others, making it easier for affluent christians to stay comfortable. So christians can be guilty of manipulation and misinformation too.
How can truth win over falsehood?
Emotions and intuitive thinking are good things, not bad. But it is a little scary to think that they can be used to promote wrong and deceptive ideas.
However there are ways to combat manipulative methods bombarding us, and in our own thinking too.
Want to know the truth
Sad to say, many christians are among those most prone to conspiracy theories and political misinformation, probably because we have been taught to respect authority and to believe things on faith, and because right wing politicians know how to press christian buttons on issues like sexuality, gender and abortion.
But Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) whereas the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44). So we christians should be especially wanting to know the truth and hold to it.
Pre-bunking is better than de-bunking
It is much harder to combat false information after it has been received by the brain. Warning people and preparing ourselves beforehand to be wary of unsubstantiated claims is the best way to combat misinformation.
Studies show that when people are prepared by learning about logical fallacies, misinformation and manipulation techniques , they are more sceptical about falsehoods. It would be good to help our children, and ourselves, be more prepared in this way by discussing examples of misinformation.
Choose information sources wisely
It is obvious that social media and mass media all have their viewpoints and biases, and some, whether it be Fox News or the Socialist Worker, are likely to allow their biases to determine what they report and how they report it – views more than news. We need to really work at finding reliable sources.
It is easy to embrace the familiar and the like-minded, and Facebook algorithms help us have a blinkered vision of issues. We need to find ways to filter out the extreme views yet read enough reasoned views on different sides of any question we are considering to feel confident we have a fair grasp of the issues.
Pay attention to accuracy.
We can be on guard when reading social media (which typically offers brief opinions with little supporting information), and not just accept what we read. We can consider information offered and ask ourselves is it really information or just misinformation; does it offer credible evidence for its claims?
Strive for accuracy.
Check sources when communicating our ideas, and choose information that is reliably evidenced. A lot of the preparation for posts on this website is spent in reading sources, asking Google questions to test the evidence I have read, and trying to find good representatives from either side of the question.
The truth will set us free
Jesus said that the truth would set us free (John 8:32). I’m sure there are many ways to apply this saying, but we surely must conclude that we don’t have to be afraid of the truth. Jesus is on the side of truth.
We don’t have to allow our religious views to prevent us considering whether politicians and media are really telling us the truth, or are deliberately seeking to misinform and manipulate us into serving their purposes.
We can learn to test what we hear and read, and what we say, and, as Pete Townsend wrote so many years ago, we “won’t get fooled again.”