19 March 2019

So Many Lies

Welcome back. Two years ago, I highlighted a study of how partisanship and prior beliefs influenced the way people processed political misinformation (Political Fact Checking).

I introduced that blog post noting, Having grown up a staunch believer in Superman’s truth, justice and the American way, I was quite troubled by the 2015-2016 presidential primaries and election.

PolitiFact fact check rating
Trump’s statements in the primaries were used in two experiments that found: Once false information is in the public sphere, it is difficult to correct; reservations regarding factual information are difficult to overcome; and partisanship and Trump support were the best predictors of whether corrections to false statements would produce any change in belief.

Despite the study results, I stated that it would be interesting to see if President Trump’s continued mix of fact and fiction will have any effect on his supporters.

Unprecedented Number of Falsehoods
The Washington Post Fact Checker reported that, as of St. Patrick’s Day, President Trump made 9,179 false or misleading claims. During his first 100 days, he averaged 4.9 per day; that increased over time. Not every day was filled with falsehoods, yet some offered remarkable numbers--one had 128!

Running tally of President Trump’s false or misleading claims on all topics through 17 March 2019 (from The Washington Posts Fact Checker, see P.S.).
The New York Times published its own, more conservative list and reported: In his first 10 months, Trump told nearly six times as many falsehoods as Obama did during his entire presidency.

Brain’s Slippery Slope
By chance, I happened to see an MSNBC news segment in which the host had invited two cognitive neuroscientists to provide insight into Trump’s increased lying propensity.

Avoiding specific comment about the president, and without mentioning a narcissist’s tendency to lie and exaggerate, they offered possible reasons, such as covering up lies with more lies; repeating falsehoods so many times they’re considered to be true and repeated more; and the brain adapting to dishonesty, which they had investigated in a 2016 study, when both were at the University College London.

The brain adapts to
lies can escalate

(multiple websites).
In that study, they showed that the extent to which 80 volunteers engaged in self-serving dishonesty increased with repetition. Using functional MRI, they found the brain’s amygdala, which is associated with emotions, adapts to the history of dishonest behavior. Its response to lying declined with every lie; larger drops in amygdala activity predicted bigger lies.

In effect, the biological mechanism supports a slippery slope, whereby small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.

Why Don’t the Lies Bother Everyone?
There are likely to be several explanations for why the president’s supporters don’t appear to care about his fabrications.

Clearly, some supporters believe the lies. I suppose that starts with their news sources. Driving home from my Friday trek to the supermarket, I listen to talk radio and shudder at the misinformation.

Somewhat akin to true believers would be Stephen Colbert’s truthiness--the belief or assertion that a statement is true based solely on intuition or perception.

Many forgive the lies, hoping to gain politically or just enjoying Trump’s impromptu style.

Counterfactual Thinking
A study by a London Business School researcher addressed a spinoff of forgiving the lies. Counterfactual thinking focuses on how an outcome could have turned out differently or a lie could have been true.

Counterfactual thinking (from
The researcher conducted three experiments in which nearly 2,800 Trump and Clinton supporters judged falsehoods either aligned or misaligned with their political preferences. Although the participants knew the falsehoods were false, when they reflected on how the falsehood could have been true, they judged it as less unethical. Falsehoods aligned with their views received less condemnation; simply considering a counterfactual magnified that effect.

When Trump’s staff defends a lie by suggesting how an outcome could have turned out differently or the lie could have been true, supporters might become more accepting of the lie.

Wrap Up
Unlike previous presidents, when Trump is caught lying, he expects others to accept his alternative facts. If they don’t, he attacks and charges fake news.

Superman’s truth, justice
and the American way
doesn’t get old like
this action figure.
As a recent Brookings Institution article discussed: When a president continues to insist that his previous false statements are true, the institutions of government become corroded and democracy is undermined.

I’m still a believer in Superman’s truth, justice and the American way, and am even more troubled than I was during the primaries and election. Thanks for stopping by.

The Washington Post Fact Checker database on Trump’s lies: www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims-database/

The New York Times article on Trump’s lies vs. Obama’s: www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/14/opinion/sunday/trump-lies-obama-who-is-worse.html
MSNBC interview on lying: www.rawstory.com/2018/05/watch-psychologist-explains-trump-lies-much-getting-control/
2016 study of brain adapting to falsehoods in Nature Neuroscience journal: www.nature.com/articles/nn.4426
Article on 2016 study on ScienceDaily website: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/10/161024134012.htm
Example articles on narcissistic personality disorder:
- psychcentral.com/disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder/
- www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662
- www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201707/6-common-traits-narcissists-and-gaslighters
Wikipedia write up on truthiness: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness
Study of counterfactual thoughts in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167217746152
Interview with counterfactual researcher in The New York Times: www.nytimes.com/2018/04/28/opinion/sunday/why-trump-supporters-dont-mind-his-lies.html
Article about Trump’s lies on The Brookings Institution website: www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2018/04/13/trumps-lies-corrode-democracy/

A version of this blog post appeared earlier on www.warrensnotice.com.

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