The Unbeatable Big Lie

It’s a commonplace of First Amendment theory that more speech is better–that the cure for troubling or irresponsible expression is simply more expression. Collins and Skover’s The Death of Discourse questioned that idea years ago, and seems to be getting ever more empirical confirmation. As Shankar Vedantam reports in the WaPo,

Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner, . . . studies show that the brain uses subconscious “rules of thumb” that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency.

The experiments also highlight the difference between asking people whether they still believe a falsehood immediately after giving them the correct information, and asking them a few days later. Long-term memories matter most in public health campaigns or political ones, and they are the most susceptible to the bias of thinking that well-recalled false information is true. . . . .[O]nce an idea has been implanted in people’s minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it. (emphasis added).

There’s a great political science literature on the topic as well, describing how many individuals’ perceptions are locked into “schemas” that lead them to discount information that contradicts their worldview and credit that which reinforces it.

Is there any take-away lesson from this depressing portrait of human incorrigibility? Perhaps the following: if you or your side is the subject of a vicious attack, don’t try to rebut it at length. Just try to change the subject.

For example, it appears naive to think of a political campaign as a public debate attempting to reach the truth about difficult issues. Campaigning is a struggle for salience, for putting one’s own issues at the “top of concerns” that voters consider as they choose a candidate. In such struggles for saliency, each candidate essentially tries to convince the electorate that his or her favored set of issues are most important for government to address. Watch for this dynamic in 2008–even when they are challenged on specific issues in debates, candidates will try to change the subject rather than educate the public on some perceived weak point.

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