Politics, Elections, and the Post-Truth Era
Let’s talk politics and lies. Why are they so rampant today? In today’s Psych Central Podcast, our host speaks with author and communications expert Tim Ward who explains why the truth matters so much — especially regarding our elected officials. They discuss our cognitive biases, like the “halo” and “anchoring” effects, that can cause us to turn a blind eye and believe the lies we hear.
Learn about the different types of lies politicians tell and learn how can we avoid being the victims of fake news. Click on the player above to listen now!
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About The Psych Central Podcast Host
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Post-Truth Era’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of The Psych Central Podcast, I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today, we have Tim Ward. Tim is the coauthor of the book Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics with previous guest, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky. Tim, welcome to the show.
Tim Ward: It is my pleasure to be with you today and thank you to your listeners for inviting us both into their minds.
Gabe Howard: Tim, I’m really glad to have you. Now, you and Dr. Tsipursky’s book is advertised as, and I’m reading this, this book sets out a practical plan to make truth matter in the 2020 elections. Find out how citizens can turn back the tide of post truth, politics, fake news and misinformation. Now, that’s a big statement. And frankly, it sounds like something that I would expect to hear from a politician that you kind of roll your eyes and think you can’t do that. Can you address this?
Tim Ward: Well, you’re right, I can’t do that, but we can do it. People are sick and tired of hearing politicians lie to them. They’ve realized that it not only affects their jobs, their world, but their health, when people lie about the pandemic and what’s causing it and what we can do to protect ourselves. So, if you elect people because they lie well, you’re going to end up with people who govern lying well. It’s all connected. And I think the people in America don’t want to live in a post truth society where truth doesn’t matter. Truth does matter. And we together can send a strong message this election season so that politicians of all stripes, we are not picking on anyone, of all stripes see that you have to respect your voters. And the way to do that is by telling them the truth.
Gabe Howard: One of the phrases that you use was post truth, can you explain what that is?
Tim Ward: Sure, this is something that was, I think, Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, and it means in this era, whether things are true or not matters less than whether or not they emotionally appealed to voters, that if you tell a lie that is really emotionally convincing, voters won’t punish you for that. They’ll just say, well, it serves our side. Well, you know, politics is a lot about
persuasion, but it also has to be persuasion for the public good. And when people are only using persuasive techniques to lie and deceive people about what’s actually happening, you’re not really serving the public good. And why is it that people will do that? Well, you know, we get strongly invested in our side winning. If you think of anybody who watches a football game when their team gets a penalty flag, what’s the first thing you do? The ref’s blind?
Gabe Howard: Yeah.
Tim Ward: That’s an unfair call. The ref is biased. So, there’s this tendency to want your side to always be right. That’s a natural human tendency. And in a football game, what difference does it make if that’s how you feel? But when it comes to politics, there’s a lot more at stake.
Gabe Howard: I’m cynical, I just want to say that right up front, but don’t all politicians lie? I am forty-three years old and the one truth is that politicians lie.
Tim Ward: Well, let me, first of all, agree with that and then qualify by saying that some do it worse than others. Lots of fact checkers are out there, which can give you a rating. How many lies have been told? And also, in terms of quality, there are different kinds of lies. There are some lies that are overgeneralizing, exaggerating, maybe hiding some things that are truth. And then there are blatant lies, you know, in your face saying one thing one day and another thing the next day. And then there’s gaslighting, which is with the media reports on a lie saying, no, they’re the liars, not me. Trying to get people to doubt their own sense of reality. So, one of the things we encourage people to do is say, OK, suspect all politicians of lies, but especially the ones that you may favor. Fact check for yourself and see what kinds of lies you’re being told. Are you being told more white lies or exaggerations or are you being deliberately and systematically lied to?
Gabe Howard: One of the things that I think that Americans don’t understand is evolution, especially with politicians that have been in the public eye for a long time. And the example that I use is myself, when I was 15 years old, if you asked me, Gabe, what is the best soda in the world? I would have said Mountain Dew. And now at forty-three, if you ask me, you know, Gabe, what is the best soda in the world? I would say Diet Coke. It is certainly possible that somebody putting those two films back to back would be like, OK, were you lying early in your political career or are you lying now to become whatever I’m running for? Now that’s just a change in opinion. Of course, we call that flip flopping, I suppose. But
Tim Ward: Right.
Gabe Howard: I also think about it, like you said, exaggeration. Is there a difference between this is a small house, this is a tiny house, and this house is a thousand square feet? I’d have to imagine that Bill Gates would think that my house is small, whereas anybody that lives in a New York City Manhattan would see my house is huge. The fact remains, it’s still two thousand square feet.
Tim Ward: Right. So, there’s something really important about being able to say it’s two thousand square feet because that’s a fact,
Gabe Howard: Right.
Tim Ward: Big or small, cramped or spacious. Those are value judgments that can only really be interpreted when anyone brings it back down to a fact. So being able to speak about facts is an important thing. If a politician says my plan is going to fix this about the country, it’s legitimate to say, oh, yeah? What are the specific details of your plan? And if they say, well, that’s a secret.
Tim Ward: Or if they give you some ideas about the plan and you say, but that’s the opposite of what you said in the past, have you changed your mind? And the politician says, oh, I never said that. Well, that’s what you have to worry about. It’s not so much whether somebody changed their mind, it’s whether or not they say, I never said that if they actually did. We’ve got to be smarter about listening for lies in when politicians speak. So, there are lots of different ways that you can try to fool people. What really matters is the intent. If a political figure is really trying to explain what they’re doing, they may be exaggerating. They may have some hyperbole. That’s one thing. But if they’re saying things that are false, maybe even about their opponents’ plans, that’s something that should be a red flag for us. When we get those red flags, we should have a higher standard leading to fact check everything else we hear from them.
Gabe Howard: You claim that the current political and media landscape is tilted against truth and facts. Why do you believe that? And how do you think it got that way?
Tim Ward: A big part of it is social media. We used to live in a world where the mainstream media, big networks, big, big newspapers had budgets to rigorously fact check everything. And by and large, they got things right. But the Internet has completely changed the game. It’s pushed us on to a 24-hour news cycle. It’s slashed the budgets of the serious news organizations. So, it’s easier for them to report the news of not just the day, but the news of the minute. Somebody tweets something they just send out boom, news report, so-and-so says X without seriously fact checking X to begin with. So, claims are put out and opinions are put out. And it’s harder to get to those facts. That’s compounded by the fact that on social media, people share stuff and your friends read it and we tend to trust more things that are said by our friends and our family. So, if I see oh, my friend Gabe just sent me this article. Oh, it says alligators are migrating to the Great Lakes. Wow. I’ll send that on to my friends because it comes from someone you trust. You tend to think it’s more true. You tend to send it out easier. And so that’s why you have huge amounts of misinformation in social media.
Gabe Howard: I just can’t help but think, is this just another book that’s anti Trump? Is that really what you’re saying, that Trump is bad? He’s got to go. He’s a liar. And you just wrote a book to prove it?
Tim Ward: Well, there are books out there like that. We have a different stand and our stand is the truth matters and any politician who wants to show the truth matters and sign the pro truth pledge, which is connected to the book and is then ready to follow that standard, we’ll embrace them wholeheartedly. We believe people can change. And if they do change, they should be rewarded for choosing to tell the truth, for deciding to be truthful, especially if they’re public figures. Over a thousand elected officials
have signed the pro truth pledge to date. As to Trump, according to most news sources, he’s repeated over 20,000 falsehoods and misleading statements since he’s been elected. It’s an incredible number and it shows an incredible disregard for the truth. So, I would say anybody who listens to the president should rigorously fact check whatever they hear him say. And specifically, if he says something without evidence, they should ask themselves, why is there no evidence for this? Surely if he had evidence, he’d give it. So, when somebody makes claims and they don’t provide evidence, that should be a red flag. That should be a warning. This claim may not be true.
Gabe Howard: Now, many people would argue that he hasn’t made 20,000 false claims. That the liberal media has lied, that the fact checking websites are biased against him, that it’s all fake news, and that, in fact, he is an incredibly honest person who’s just being attacked by a smear campaign. Now, that really speaks more to a cognitive bias, I suppose. And it also makes me wonder — we as a society believe that all politicians are lying except for our guy. We never
Tim Ward: Yeah,
Gabe Howard: Think that the person that we voted for is lying. It’s all the other ones. It really is a cognitive bias. Right? Can you explain what that is and why people believe it?
Tim Ward: Sure, cognitive biases are mental blind spots that everybody has, you know, our brains have evolved to help us survive well in the African savannah and the social mechanisms that are connected to how our brains evolved and told us to trust and to create lots of shortcuts for who we should trust and why we should trust them. And once people display the characteristics of the kind of person we should trust, it’s easy to continue trusting them. So, someone might simply say, OK, Donald Trump, celebrity, successful business person, I trust him. So that’s a bias called the halo effect. And that means like a halo on an angel. If they’re good in some things, you tend to put a halo on them, on other things. You think of it like, you know, movie stars who endorse a health product or a brand of watch. Why do they do that? Because we think, oh, this movie star, he likes that. It’s got to be good. But in fact, their ability to act well or look handsome has nothing to do with whether or not their watch will work. So
Gabe Howard: Very true, very true.
Tim Ward: So, that’s one example of a bias that really can make people make chronically bad judgments. I will connect it to one other one, which is called the anchoring bias. And this is once we make a strong impression, it becomes very difficult to dislodge us from that impression. You could think of love at first sight. It’s a good parallel to that. Sometimes you meet someone, we fall in love with and we get infatuated and it may take us months to see they’re actually not a very nice person.
Gabe Howard: Or they’re not good for us, it’s there’s
Tim Ward: Exactly.
Gabe Howard: A concept that I love, it’s called new relationship energy. Everything is perfect until that
new relationship energy kind of wears off. Right.
Tim Ward: Right.
Gabe Howard: Whether that takes days or weeks or months, they’re perfect. But then eventually reality sets in.
Tim Ward: Right, right.
Gabe Howard: But during the new relationship energy phase. Oh, it’s addictive.
Tim Ward: Yeah, I think, indeed, for many people, one of the things they found attractive about Trump initially was he wasn’t like a politician. He seemed to say exactly what he was on his mind. He seemed not to be carefully crafting policy positions to please others or the media and a lot of people, I think, like that. So, they had what was the name of that? That new energy.
Gabe Howard: That new relationship energy. He was different. Yeah.
Tim Ward: Exactly. And, you know, in 2016, that’s understandable for some people. Four years later, I think that’s worn off. The new relationship has worn off for a lot of people.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Tim Ward, co-author of Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics. Now, one of the things that you mentioned earlier was that over a thousand politicians have signed the pro truth pledge. Can you tell our listeners what that is?
Tim Ward: The pledge is something that was created by my coauthor, Gleb Tsipursky, and Dr. Tsipursky is by training a behavioral scientist specializing in cognitive neuroscience, how our brains process truth, truth and lies. So, he created this set of 12 behaviors that, if you follow them, will help you be more truthful and less likely to spread misinformation, especially online, but will also help others, help your friends, your networks better value the expressions of truth, too. The pro truth pledge can make you somebody who can be more certain that you are spreading truthful information online and not inadvertently spreading lies. So, doing things like fact checking, like being willing to question sources from your friends before passing something along, can cut the spread of misinformation and give us a healthier Internet. So that’s the purpose of the pro truth pledge. And I’ve signed it myself and I can attest it’s changed my behavior.
Gabe Howard: I believe you when you say that it has changed your behavior, but we’re not interested in Tim Ward right now. How do you know, or how does Dr. Tsipursky know that this pro truth pledge is going to change people’s behavior at all?
Tim Ward: Right. Excellent. That was Gleb’s question too when he came up with it. Because he’s a scientist, what he did is he reached out and he offered to other scientists the opportunity to conduct research experiments on the pro truth pledge. And not one, but two peer-reviewed studies have been published in scientific journals now attesting to the significant behavior change that those who signed the pro truth pledge have made in their social media. So, what they simply did is they studied people’s social media behavior. Then people took the pledge and then they studied their behavior after that. Now, because social media is out there it was actually easy to do. From the time I signed the pledge, they could track their behavior the four weeks after they signed and the four weeks before they signed and see whether or not they were forwarding on and passing along stuff which was not properly fact checked or true. So those studies are now published. The details about them are in the book. And we invite anybody who wants to not only take a look at the research, but there’s scope for doing more research into it too.
Gabe Howard: I like anything that that’s backed up by fact, and it’s interesting that you said you would look at the four weeks before on social media. One of the benefits of that, of course, is they haven’t signed it yet and they probably don’t know they’re going to sign it. Right. So, when you go
Tim Ward: Right.
Gabe Howard: Back to those four, it’s pure.
Tim Ward: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: I mean, it’s, that’s kind of incredible if you think about it from a scientific research standpoint. So, let’s talk about the subtitle of your book, A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics. Without reading us the book, can you tell our listeners about this plan?
Tim Ward: Sure, there’s three basic steps, the first step is in the book, read it and become smarter at distinguishing truth from lies. Protect yourself. There are practical things you can do, so it’s harder to fool you. The second thing is spread good practices by signing the pro truth pledge and practicing truthful behavior on social media and with emails, with what you share. Beyond that, there’s the social aspect. You can join the pro truth movement. Signing the pledge is the first step, but you can volunteer. You can
post about the pro truth movement. And there’s other ways that you can support the movement. Tell your friends about them. If you’ve got friends who you think would respond to being more truthful, you can give them a copy of the book or simply email them about the pledge. Explain why you signed it. So those two steps, personal, your own relationship and then working as part of the movement. We believe this plan can make an impact in politics. And let me say one of the practical things that I’m working with, the person who’s in charge of our volunteers right now to set up is not just the presidential elections, but there’s all these debates that are going to be going on in town halls with officials up for election. We want people who are pro truth to stand up and ask them questions. Obviously, it’s virtual now so,
Gabe Howard: Right.
Tim Ward: Ask them questions, phone-in and ask them questions. Do you value truth? Have you signed the pro truth pledge? And if they haven’t signed it, to say, will you sign the pro truth pledge? Give them an opportunity to sign it.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that I think about in everything you just said is that that just sounds way too simple. So, I’m going to go to ask basically the same question using radically different words. How do you convince people who believe in lies that align with their emotionally motivated reasoning? They believe it. They’re emotionally invested in it. How do you get them to turn away from that and instead believe in facts which are probably very uncomfortable to them? How do you stem that tide? Because it’s comforting lies versus uncomfortable facts, and most people want to be comfortable. How do you change their mind?
Tim Ward: You are absolutely right, and the sad truth is you can’t change their mind. There are things that you can do with people who hold that view, but people who are simply invested in their side and they don’t care about the facts. These are not the ones that we’re working on reaching with pro truth and the pro truth pledge. We’re working on the ones who’ve had enough. We’re working the ones who want their country to be more grounded in truth and facts in its politics. And let’s say only one in 20 people have come to that realization that truth matters over the last four years. Well, five percent of voters would be enough to swing most states.
Gabe Howard: That’s very, very true. We have this tendency when we say one in 20, one in 20, that’s not very many. That’s five percent. There is nobody in my life that if they received a five percent raise, that their job wouldn’t take everybody out to dinner and think that it was just the most massive number in the history of ever. If they got a five percent rebate on something that they bought or their car or their house just on and on and on, five percent suddenly is this gigantic number until we start saying, well, you know, we get one in 20 to believe the truth. That’s nothing. Why do you think that is? Why? I mean, why.
Tim Ward: Well, now, Dr. Tsipursky may roll his eyes at this because I’m not going to provide scientific research for what I’m going to say, to me, it’s just something that makes common sense. Human nature is deeply rooted in emotions. People we care about, ideas that we care about, they move us as much as hunger and fear. And we can think about numbers, but we don’t feel them deeply. And that means we can easily be misled about numbers. We’ve got very peculiar cognitive biases around numbers which can
lead us to make very bad decisions sometimes. People will hear one percent as something that’s very small and insignificant or as we’ve just talked about, five percent of small and insignificant, when in fact five percent can mean the difference between a flood that washes over a city street and one that doesn’t.
Gabe Howard: Right. It’s interesting what you said about math, because even as you’re talking about math, I hate math. It was my worst class in school. I dreaded them and
Tim Ward: Uh-huh.
Gabe Howard: And I’m not good at it. I don’t like numbers because they’re so rigid. And that is, that is how I am wired. I like the gray. I like to discuss things, whereas math, five plus five is always ten. There’s no
Tim Ward: Yeah,
Gabe Howard: Wiggle room. There’s no discussion.
Tim Ward: Yeah. Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Five plus five is ten. There’s nothing to talk about and I, I really like to talk but I like that human connection
Tim Ward: Yeah,
Gabe Howard: As well, you know. I mean that’s.
Tim Ward: Yeah, I agree with you, the thing that we all have to do is figure out what are the numbers that we need to pay attention to and how can we know that those numbers are true? Right. So, there’s a really crazy number out there, which is the “r” number, which is very important for pandemics. It’s the rate of transmission of infections. And if you’ve got a pandemic going on and one person passes it to one person or fewer than your “r” is less than one and the pandemic will die out. But if your “r” is more than one, the pandemic will spread. So that number is really important to scientists. And one of the problems that we’ve seen in the US is we can’t get that number down below one. That means the infections continue to spread and it’ll never, ever go away if that number is greater than one. So it’s a number of great importance to the scientists who are working on how do we bring this pandemic under control.
Gabe Howard: And yet to build upon that, somebody else will find a completely different number, they will say, well, you know, only 2% die and therefore that’s not really important, or 180,000 people have been infected, but there’s 400 million people. So, are we really giving up our constitutional rights and civil liberties over such a small number? And it’s very interesting that we can use math in this way, because, I mean, one, I would argue that I don’t care if the death rate is one or 180,000, if it’s you or
somebody that you love, that number is really, frankly, irrelevant, because mom or grandma or your child or your best friend are gone. So, it’s interesting. And I think it goes back to the cognitive bias that you were explaining. We have this cognitive bias in our head that as long as it’s nobody that we know, it’s an insignificant number and hey, people die anyway. But that cognitive bias is destroyed immediately if it’s us or somebody that we love. And suddenly we get on board and we see this and people changing their opinions all the time. As a mental health advocate, the number one way that I can get somebody to pay attention to mental illness advocacy is if they or a loved one is diagnosed with it, they end up in the mental health system and they have a traumatic and or bad experience. Then suddenly they want to fix it. Whereas if I talk to that same person two years before when they knew nobody with severe and persistent mental illness, it’s well, it’s fine. I mean, people have health insurance. Well, if you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, it’s they have all of these reasons that the mental health safety net is unimportant to America as a whole. Is it basically like that? Is that a good analogy?
Tim Ward: Certainly, what you’re pointing to is vitally important for us as citizens, but also for our political leaders, and that is finding out how you can take numbers that guide policy and connect them to realities that affect people’s lives. You know, there’s that horrible but brilliant quote that Joseph Stalin gave us years ago. One, death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. So, from the point of view of where we are today, knowing what numbers mean, how do numbers actually affect us is not only important, but being aware that politicians quite often will skillfully abuse numbers to forward their policy goals. They may even be true numbers. So, at the beginning of the pandemic, some politicians were saying, oh, there’s only 15 cases in the country that encouraging people to ignore it. And then they were saying, oh, sure, there’s deaths, but there are fewer deaths than the flu, encouraging people to ignore it. Those were true numbers, but they were ignoring the fact that pandemics have exponential spread. And if you ignore it when the numbers fall, the number gets very big and almost impossible to control, which is what happened.
Gabe Howard: The question that’s still on my mind here is, do you honestly think that your efforts can make an impact on our political system? I mean, this with all respect, but you wrote a book that said, hey, there’s a lot of lying in politics. Here’s what we can do better. And I think it didn’t we just know this already. And I think that shows apathy on my part. And I have to imagine that there’s probably a lot of apathy in America about what is happening in politics.
Tim Ward: Yeah, it’s out of my hands and it’s out of Gleb’s hands, we can each, both the two of us, but everybody who signed the pro truth pledge everybody who values truth and who is disgusted by the lack of truth in our politics today. Every person has the power to affect their friends, their networks, others around them, and to affect their own political system. Whether or not this is enough to create big change depends on how many people are motivated to make this kind of change. But if there’s one thing that I believe I know about the United States, it’s that when people have had enough, they’re ready to stand up and create change. I think this is the year the people have had enough of lives. And it’s my hope, and Gleb’s hope, that they’ll make truth matter and they’ll take a stand.
Gabe Howard: I like that, thank you so much, Tim, one of the stands that you want people to take is to sign the pro truth pledge. Where can they find that pledge and sign it?
Tim Ward: It is as easy as you can imagine, www.ProTruthPledge.org, www.ProTruthPledge.org. You can not only read the pledge there, sign it, see others who signed it, but you can also find ways to become engaged and involved.
Gabe Howard: And the book’s title is Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics.
Tim Ward: Yes.
Gabe Howard: Tim, thank you so much for being here and to all of our listeners, thank you for listening. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole: And Other Observations also available on Amazon. Or you can get a signed copy for less money by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please subscribe. Also, please rate us, give us as many stars as you feel that we deserve and also use your words. Tell people why they should give us a shot. And remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling any time anywhere simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We’ll see everybody next week.
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Howard, G. (2020). Politics, Elections, and the Post-Truth Era. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/politics-elections-and-the-post-truth-era/