Cognitive science says a lying leader like Trump can scramble your mind and destabilize society
Donald Trump is a historic first in American history in that he is a President who lies more often than he tells the truth.
On Thursday, Politico‘s Maria Konnikova wrote about the effect this could potentially have on cognition and the struggle to remain fact-based and objective while living under a leader who appears to be largely untethered from concepts like truth and objective reality.
“All presidents lie,” Konnikova said. It comes with the territory. Nixon, Reagan and Bill Clinton all got caught diverging from the truth during their presidencies, but Donald Trump’s lying is on a different scale than that.
“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,” wrote Konnikova .
Lying appears to be a deeply “ingrained habit” in Trump. Konnikova noted that reporters, biographers and others who have followed him closely over the decades say that he lies fluidly, frequently and about needlessly minor things.
Now that Trump is installed in office and has been telegraphing untruths from virtually the moment he was sworn in, the U.S. has entered a new phase in its history and the basic fabric of common understanding is at risk.
“Lies are exhausting to fight, pernicious in their effects and, perhaps worst of all, almost impossible to correct if their content resonates strongly enough with people’s sense of themselves, which Trump’s clearly do,” Konnikova warned.
Harvard University researcher Daniel Gilbert says that a lie arrives in the brain in two stages. We instinctively believe statements and assertions in order to comprehend them. The “wait, that isn’t true” moment comes after and, as Konnikova said, it “can be easily disrupted.”
“We must accept something in order to understand it,” Konnikova said. It happens “effortlessly and automatically.” The second step involves cognitive work. We must affirm or reject every statement.
Gilbert wrote that human minds, “when faced with shortages of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, may fail to unaccept the ideas that they involuntarily accept during comprehension.”
“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,” Konnikova explained. “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.”
Trump also makes use of repetition to drive a false point into people’s minds. The phenomenon of “illusory truth” is when people have heard a false statement enough times, their minds begin to interpret it as true.
Furthermore, even repeating the phony assertion to disprove it only convinces people further of its truthfulness.
In politics, these principles are particularly dangerous, not least because people tend to automatically believe lies that comfort them by reaffirming their existing biases and beliefs.
“If false information comports with preexisting beliefs — something that is often true in partisan arguments — attempts to refute it can actually backfire, planting it even more firmly in a person’s mind,” Konnikova said. “Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth University who studies false beliefs, has found that when false information is specifically political in nature, part of our political identity, it becomes almost impossible to correct lies.”
When Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, his assertions resonated with people who were already afraid of immigrants taking their jobs.
Konnikova said, “If you already believe immigrants put your job at risk, who’s to say the chastity of your daughters isn’t in danger, too? Or as Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, once Trump makes that emotional connection, ‘He could say what he wants, and they’ll follow him.’”
He concluded, “The distressing reality is that our sense of truth is far more fragile than we would like to think it is — especially in the political arena, and especially when that sense of truth is twisted by a figure in power.”
“False beliefs, once established, are incredibly tricky to correct. A leader who lies constantly creates a new landscape, and a citizenry whose sense of reality may end up swaying far more than they think possible.”