The power of politicians, media, advertisers and other professional communicators to influence and potentially distort public opinion is well known.
Take Iraq for example. About a year after the 2003 invasion, roughly 30 per cent of respondents in an American survey still believed that weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq, and by 2006 that figure had declined only slightly, to 23 per cent. This erroneous belief persisted even though media and governments alike eventually accepted that Iraq possessed no such weapons.
How can so many people develop and cling to such mistaken beliefs in defiance of reality?
Democracy rests on the notion that a free marketplace of ideas is the best adjudicator between promising proposals and shallow silliness. But how can the marketplace function if many people do not remember what actually happened? Fortunately, research in psychology can provide an insight into this problem.
I recently conducted research with colleagues abroad in which we investigated how people processed information about Iraq. We identified scepticism as the key variable that predicted whether or not people mistakenly believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found. People who were sceptical about the motives underlying the invasion tended to be more attuned to the reality on the ground than people who were less sceptical.
Similarly, after it was corrected, sceptics were able to discount the misinformation, whereas those who were less sceptical failed to discount the discredited versions of events. Importantly, scepticism did not interfere with people's ability to remember true events, identifying it as a sharp and incisive tool to differentiate between truth and falsehood.
What does it mean to be sceptical? How can one be suitably sceptical of information presented in the media or by politicians? Is there anything we can do during this election campaign to avoid being misled?
I propose four strategies based on research findings in psychology and cognitive science that can assist us in processing information more judiciously and that may make us more resistant to mistaken beliefs.
First is confidence - an essential ingredient of scepticism. You cannot doubt a politician's statement, especially one based on unspecified intelligence, unless you have sufficient confidence to know that you may know better.
Is there any evidence that citizens may know better than politicians and their intelligence?
Again, Iraq offers a relevant example because few could doubt now that the many millions of people who marched against the invasion in early 2003 had it right, whereas the leaders Bush, Blair and Howard had it catastrophically wrong.
The leaders were legally wrong to launch an invasion that then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called illegal; they were wrong about the expected outcome because according to the UN, torture and violence are now worse in Iraq than under Saddam; and they were morally wrong because the invasion caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. It doesn't follow that our leaders are always wrong, or that intelligence is necessarily false, but it does follow that as citizens (the majority of whom in this country opposed the invasion) we have every reason (and every right) to be sceptical.
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