The title of this post is identical to the title of a column written by David Ignatius in the 5 August edition of the Washington Post. Ignatius began his column by asking, “How did Donald Trump win the Republican nomination despite clear evidence that he had misrepresented or falsified key issues throughout his campaign?” Also read or reread the healthy memory blog posts “Donald Trump is Bending Reality to Get Into the American Psyche” and “Trick or Tweet or Both? How Social Media is Messing Up Politics.” Trump makes outrageous statements, contradicts himself, and betrays a woeful ignorance about government and international relations, and makes claims that he is going to fix problems without providing any plans as to how he is going to fix them. Nevertheless, people say that they are going to vote for him. When pressed they say that are unhappy with current politics and the country is going in the wrong direction. To this HM asks, so the bridge is crowded and slow moving, does that mean you are going to jump off the bridge, even though you don’t know that you’ll survive the jump or that you might be eaten by the crocodiles in the water?
There have been prior posts about the confirmation bias and the backfire effect. The confirmation bias refers to our bias to believe statements or facts that are in consonance with our beliefs. The backfire effect refers to the effect when efforts to correct misinformation actually strengthen beliefs in the misinformation. Ignatius is referencing an article by Christopher Graves in the February 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review. Research by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifer showed the persistence of the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in 2005 and 2006 after the United States had publicly admitted that they didn’t exist. They concluded “The results show that direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically founded factual belief.
Graves also examined how attempts of debunk myths can reinforce them, simply by repeating the untruth. This study in the Journal of Consumer Research is titled “How Warnings About False Claims Become Recommendations. It seems that people remember the assertion and forget whether it’s a lie. The authors wrote, “The more often older adults were told that a given claim was false, the more likely they were to accept it as true after several days have passed.”
Graves noted that when critics challenge false assertions, say, Trump’s claim that thousands of Muslims cheered in New Jersey when the twin towers fell—their refutations can threaten people rather than convince them. And when people feel threatened, they round up their wagons and defend their beliefs. Ego involvement generates large mental efforts to defend their erroneous beliefs. Not only does the Big Lie Work, but small lies also work
Social scientists understand why the buttons that Trump’s campaign pushes are so effective. “When the GOP nominee paints a dark picture of a violent, frightening American, he triggers the “fight or flight’ response that is hard-wired in or brains. For the body politic, it can produce a kind of panic attack.
So attempts to correct misinformation can backfire and have the opposite effect. So what can be done? Some possible approaches will be found in the next HM post.
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