The Situationist

The Situation of Swift-Boating

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 27, 2008

In case you missed it, there’s an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today, titled “Your Brain Lies to You” by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt. Here’s a brief sample:

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FALSE beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way.

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This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his standing in the polls.

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Journalists and campaign workers may think they are acting to counter misinformation by pointing out that it is not true. But by repeating a false rumor, they may inadvertently make it stronger. In its concerted effort to “stop the smears,” the Obama campaign may want to keep this in mind. Rather than emphasize that Mr. Obama is not a Muslim, for instance, it may be more effective to stress that he embraced Christianity as a young man.

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For the rest of this piece click here. For related Situationist posts, see “On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.”

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2 Responses to “The Situation of Swift-Boating”

  1. […] by The Situationist Staff on July 14, 2008 We recently posted on an interesting op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Your Brain Lies to You” by Sam Wang and […]

  2. […] effects; studies from psychology tell us that false statements are notoriously persistent and difficult to counter. Fortunately the misused ellipsis is easy to reveal; one need only consult the original material to […]

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