Trump’s Lies vs. Your Brain
All presidents lie. Richard Nixon said he was not a crook, yet he orchestrated the most shamelessly crooked act in the modern presidency. Ronald Reagan said he wasn’t aware of the Iran-Contra deal; there’s evidence he was. Bill Clinton said he did not have sex with that woman; he did, or close enough. Lying in politics transcends political party and era. It is, in some ways, an inherent part of the profession of politicking.
But Donald Trump is in a different category. The sheer frequency, spontaneity and seeming irrelevance of his lies have no precedent. Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were protecting their reputations; Trump seems to lie for the pure joy of it. A whopping 70 percent of Trump’s statements that PolitiFact checked during the campaign were false, while only 4 percent were completely true, and 11 percent mostly true. (Compare that to the politician Trump dubbed “crooked,” Hillary Clinton: Just 26 percent of her statements were deemed false.)
Our brains are particularly ill-equipped to deal with lies when they come not singly but in a constant stream, and Trump, we know, lies constantly, about matters as serious as the election results and as trivial as the tiles at Mar-a-Lago. (According to his butler, Anthony Senecal, Trump once said the tiles in a nursery at the West Palm Beach club had been made by Walt Disney himself; when Senecal protested, Trump had a single response: “Who cares?”) When we are overwhelmed with false, or potentially false, statements, our brains pretty quickly become so overworked that we stop trying to sift through everything. It’s called cognitive load—our limited cognitive resources are overburdened. It doesn’t matter how implausible the statements are; throw out enough of them, and people will inevitably absorb some. Eventually, without quite realizing it, our brains just give up trying to figure out what is true.
Here’s the really bad news for all of those fact-checkers and publications hoping to counter Trump’s false claims: Repetition of any kind—even to refute the statement in question—only serves to solidify it. For instance, if you say, “It is not true that there was voter fraud,” or try to refute the claim with evidence, you often perversely accomplish the opposite of what you want. Later on, when the brain goes to recall the information, the first part of the sentence often gets lost, leaving only the second. In a 2002 study, Colleen Seifert, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, found that even retracted information—that we acknowledge has been retracted—can continue to influence our judgments and decisions. Even after people were told that a fire was not caused by paint and gas cylinders left in a closet, they continued to use that information—for instance, saying the fire was particularly intense because of the volatile materials present—even as they acknowledged that the correction had taken place. When presented with the contradictions in their responses, they said things like, “At first, the cylinders and cans were in the closet and then they weren’t”—in effect creating a new fact to explain their continued reliance on false information. This means that when the New York Times, or any other publication, runs a headline like “Trump Claims, With No Evidence, That ‘Millions of People Voted Illegally,’” it perversely reinforces the very claim it means to debunk.
Read the full article "Trump’s Lies vs. Your Brain" at Politico.com