Douglas LaBier writes in Psychology Today to explain why voters are so susceptible to political lies. The answer seems rather obvious to me: Because people tend to think tribally and generally don’t think critically, preferring cognitive shortcuts because they take less effort.
Lies tend to stick in people’s minds, and can sway the outcome of elections, as well as public opinion in many arenas. So, what happens within our minds and emotions that make us receptive to lies, and then resistant to information that exposes the truth? A study led by Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Western Australia explains part of what may happen. The researchers found that “Weighing the plausibility and the source of a message is cognitively more difficult than simply accepting that the message is true — it requires additional motivational and cognitive resources.”
If the subject isn’t very important to you or you have other things on your mind, misinformation is more likely to take hold, according to the researchers. They point out that rejecting false information requires more cognitive effort than just taking it in. That is, weighing how plausible a message is, or assessing the reliability of its source, is more difficult, cognitively, than simply accepting that the message is true. In short, it takes more mental work. And if the topic isn’t very important to you or you have other things on your mind, the misinformation is more likely to take hold.
Moreover, when you do take the time to valuate a claim or allegation, you’re likely to pay attention just to a limited number of features, the study found. For example: Does the information fit with other things you already believe? Does it make a coherent story with what you already know? Does it come from a credible source? And do others believe it?
In other words, we tend to use cognitive shortcuts. Rather than evaluating claims and arguments independently and rationally, we filter out facts that don’t support our preconceived ideas. While the human brain is certainly capable of thinking rationally, it’s also quite good at preventing us from doing so. Thinking rationally takes effort.