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opinion | Martin G. Evans

Confronting and refuting political lies

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From the point of view of constitutional law, I am sure that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts got it right when the justices recently struck down a statute forbidding lying in a political campaign. However, from the point of view of cognitive science, their remedy leaves a lot to be desired.

The court’s correction for misleading or mischievous political speech is counter-speech. The court maintains that when disputants argue things out in the marketplace of ideas, lies will be exposed.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. The lie itself usually opens up a new arena for discussion and, by being first on the ground, sets up the mental frame for the argumentation to come. Therefore, those wishing to refute a political lie have a two-part task: (1) They must convincingly articulate the truth and (2) they have to replace the existing frame of discussion with a more accurate one.

Those tasks are very difficult to accomplish.

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Why? Because the mental frame the lie establishes is then used to channel the information we receive. Information consistent with the frame is easily assimilated in our minds. Information that is inconsistent with the frame tends to be ignored or distorted into being consistent.

In the case before the court, an opposition PAC had accused a male candidate of caring more for felons than for citizens, and of feathering his own nest.

Counter-speech is at a major disadvantage here; the PAC or politician who gets the lie in first has the higher ground. This advantage for the lying party is enhanced by repetition. Repeating the lie time and again strengthens the network of nerve associations (the neurological substrate) underlying the frame in the minds of listeners and readers, making the lie more difficult to refute.

Paradoxically, as linguistics professor George Lakoff has written, when the candidate denies the lies, the same frame is invoked and once again the neurological substrate is strengthened. For effective counter-speech, the candidate must escape from the original frame. How? Well, for example, he could speak about all the good things he has done for his constituents and the people of the Commonwealth during his political career, and how he has lived modestly and within his means over the years.

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By talking this route, there is a good chance that he can supplant the old negative frame with a new, more positive frame.

Cognitive science has much to teach us in the political arena. By increasing awareness of these tendencies, we can perhaps help inoculate the public against succumbing to these harmful distortions. But we also need to discourage the repetition of obvious lies.

Martin G. Evans is an organizational psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.