The Good News About Lying in Politics

…is that if we identify what’s causing much of it, we can find solutions.  This, of course, prompts us to ask a perfectly sensible question:

Is there well-designed and effective research that identifies what’s causing most of the lying in politics and lying about the evidence that underlies our political decision-making?

It turns out that there is (see this article in Psychology Today), and it tells us something very useful about how to combat lying in politics and lying about the evidence that informs our politics.

The research demonstrates that when we have a strong incentive to find the truth, we are much more likely to be able to put aside or at least reduce the impact of our tribal loyalties.

In the particular study referenced by Psychology Today’s article, that incentive was monetary.  We have good reason to think that providing people with a significant monetary incentive to be correct allows them to be committed to finding the truth as a higher priority than signaling loyalty to one’s political tribe.

For a variety of reasons, this will probably not work as a society-wide strategy for eliminating or massively reducing lying in politics.  The amount of money that would be significant enough compensation to incentivize folks to pursue the truth over tribal loyalty varies dramatically between and among persons.

Those who have plenty of money already will usually need a larger amount relative to their wealth to function as a strong incentive.  Those who have very little money will need to be provided enough money to rise above day-to-day survival concerns, a process that can take quite a long time and will also be very expensive.

Those who already have enough money to rise above day-to-day survival concerns, but aren’t so extremely wealthy that they can easily afford to turn down a monetary incentive for valuing truth over tribal loyalty, are probably going to be the most susceptible to this kind of incentive.

I’m not sure we have enough money to use it as an effective society-wide incentive under those circumstances, and that’s setting aside the very complicated questions of who gets to decide what’s true and how we manage the process of paying folks to learn it.  So what other kind of incentives might work?

Material incentives in general are subject to the same kinds of problems as using a monetary incentive, and in many cases those problems would be even more striking, particularly for rare materials and goods, or materials and goods which have very limited uses.

The wide variety of incentives that work well for a wide variety of people suggests to me that each person needs to find an incentive that works well for them, something that can provide them with such a powerful motivation to seek the truth without regard to tribal loyalty that they can make significant progress in mitigating the effects of their cognitive biases.

It also suggests to me that we need to have cultural values and norms that support a pursuit of truth over tribal loyalty.  Given how our brains work, there’s no way to eliminate completely from our decision-making the influence of tribal loyalties.  Which might not even be desirable.

And yet a powerful cultural tradition of the pursuit of Veritas and personal commitments to that pursuit can help us reduce the Animus in public life and allow us to work together more often for the good of all.

So if we want to massively reduce the lying in politics and the lying about the evidence we use to inform our politics, the best thing we can do is start today by either finding or renewing our extraordinary motivation to seek the truth even and especially when it costs us dearly-held beliefs.

The second thing we can and should do right after that is to pass our love of truth onto our children and help them find an extraordinary motivation to pursue truth above tribal loyalty as well.

In this way, we might one day find that it’s true that there is good news about lying in politics, and that the good news is that a lot of that lying has stopped.

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