Why the liars win

It's been a good 10 days since Shanar Vedantam had a great article in the Post about the power of political information.  My blog post on it would have joined the electronic dustbin of intended, but never excecuted posts, but for a friend who insisted I tackle the subject.  So here goes.

Basically, it is to the advantage of political candidates to lie.  There is an amazing perseverance of false information even once it is corrected.  Tell somebody Obama will raise your taxes and even if this is 100% disproven, people will still believe it to a surprising degree.  From the article:

In experiments conducted by political scientist John Bullock at Yale University,
volunteers were given various items of political misinformation from
real life. One group of volunteers was shown a transcript of an ad
created by NARAL Pro-Choice America that accused John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court at the time, of “supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber.”

A variety of psychological experiments have shown that political
misinformation primarily works by feeding into people's preexisting
views. People who did not like Roberts to begin with, then, ought to
have been most receptive to the damaging allegation, and this is
exactly what Bullock found. Democrats were far more likely than
Republicans to disapprove of Roberts after hearing the allegation.

Bullock then showed volunteers a refutation of the ad by
abortion-rights supporters. He also told the volunteers that the
advocacy group had withdrawn the ad. Although 56 percent of Democrats
had originally disapproved of Roberts before hearing the
misinformation, 80 percent of Democrats disapproved of the Supreme
Court nominee afterward. Upon hearing the refutation, Democratic
disapproval of Roberts dropped only to 72 percent.

Republican disapproval of Roberts rose after hearing the
misinformation but vanished upon hearing the correct information. The
damaging charge, in other words, continued to have an effect even after
it was debunked among precisely those people predisposed to buy the bad
information in the first place.

Of course, this is a bipartisan phenomenon, and the article goes on to describe an experiment involving beliefs about Guantanamo. 

What's really amazing is the “backfire effect” seemingly only among conservatives, where those told the refutation actually believe the information more strongly. 

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two
groups of volunteers with the Bush administration's prewar claims that
Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation
— the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did
not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded
in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush
administration's claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its
weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who
heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the
weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about
Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue.
One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that
included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35
percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67
percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed
that tax cuts increase revenue
.  (emphasis mine).

My friend and colleague Mike Cobb has worked with Nyhan and Reifler on this stuff, but only gets credit here, not the article. 

Of course, this has very real consequences…

Reifler questioned attempts to debunk rumors and misinformation on the campaign trail, especially among conservatives: “Sarah Palin
says she was against the Bridge to Nowhere,” he said, referring to the
pork-barrel project Palin once supported before she reversed herself.
“Sending those corrections to committed Republicans is not going to be
effective, and they in fact may come to believe even more strongly that
she was always against the Bridge to Nowhere.”

The really bad news from this?  Politicians would seem to have every incentive to lie.  It is not quite that simple, of course.  Lie pervasively enough and the media turns against you, as we've seen happen with McCain in recent weeks.  The “candidate X is a liar” narrative surely does more damage than the gain of individual lies. 

From what I've seen, the secret is to lie all you want, but just stop any particular lie when the media calls you out on it.  McCain's problem was that he kept on lying so egregiously and pervasively about Palin's reformer credentials (e.g., the Bridge to Nowhere) well after several media sources debunked this.  That basically pissed off the media.  In Obama's case, he's taken to being pretty untruthful on Social Security, and been called on it in a number of places.  Presumably, he'll be smart enough to step back from the worst distortions on the issue (the truth about McCain's plan is damning enough).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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