by Maria Boos
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, University of Michigan political scientist and health policy researcher Brendan Nyhan explains how misperceptions linger in public knowledge, even in the presence of seemingly irrefutable information to the contrary. Evidently, we're likely to gravitate toward information consistent with our own beliefs and to accept new claims biased to our existing views.
Sociologists call this "motivated reasoning," a phenomenon that is particularly intriguing to us here at Siegel+Gale as long-time proponents of simplicity, clarity and transparency in communications. There's an implication that what people hear or read has limited potential to persuade them if the information isn't in sync with their beliefs. The challenge to us communicators is to to achieve some level of shared understanding as the foundation for introducing facts that may be hard to swallow. It's worth noting, though, that it's increasingly difficult to communicate "truths" in an environment characterized by political polarization, perceived media bias, and consumers' self-selection of information "environments" (i.e., FOX News vs. MSNBC, blogs, Facebook).
Take the recent example of healthcare reform: motivated reasoning helps to explain the persistence of inaccuracies around issues such as the level of government takeover, funding for abortions, and the projected effectiveness of the bill's measures. While the impact of motivated reasoning presents a daunting communications challenge, it also raises a question about the code of conduct in our political system:
Why do we seem to tolerate elected officials telling lies?
I don't mean nuances of interpretation. Nor am I talking about legitimate debate over complex topics on which esteemed experts disagree (like the actual cost of healthcare reform). Nope, I mean bold-faced, liar-liar-pants-on-fire lies about provisions of a 1000+ page bill that politicians know a majority of the population will never read.
This is not a partisan issue. There are plenty of fibs to go around from both parties, although the obstinacy and mendacity of the statements in opposition to healthcare reform seem to approach a new extreme. This ongoing spread of misinformation only underscores the glaring lack of transparency in today’s political realm and the growing mistrust of its constituents.
If I lied on the job—and I'm thinking just one time, let alone repeatedly and vociferously—I'd get fired... first by my client and then by Siegel+Gale. Heck, even toddlers know they'll get in trouble if they're caught telling lies. So why is it that, given the inherent difficulty in truly educating the general population on a complex topic, there is no official consequence for lying as an elected official?
Some might argue that the potential consequence comes in the next election, but that's placing the burden back on the constituent who's already predisposed to believe the misinformation. Elected officials are subject to rules preventing conflicts of interest and bound by oaths of office. Shouldn't they also be required to tell the truth?
Maria Boos is a strategy director for the Siegel+Gale New York office.