Perhaps the most maddening thing about President Trump is how he’s so rarely correct. We’re not even talking about morality — though he’s not so hot in that realm either. But when it comes to pure facts, Trump is almost always wrong.
Politifact has discovered that Trump says completely true things only 5% of the time. His statements are marked as false 32% of the time — and earns their “Pants on Fire” rating 12% of the time, twice as often as he tells the complete truth. Even if you combine all the varying degrees of “true” versus “false”, including “mostly true” and “half true” — that’s still only 32%. In other words, Trump’s statements have a base in fact less than a third of the time.
But why is that the case? Does Trump know he’s almost always wrong? And if he does, why doesn’t he put more effort into at least lying effectively? International queer superhero and general know-it-all Stephen Fry has the answer.
In this video for Pindex, Fry starts by explaining the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains that people can be confident about their own knowledge if they are an expert on a subject. That’s not surprising — but what it also says is that people who know nothing about a subject will also be confident about their knowledge. Why? Because they don’t know enough about it to even realize how much they don’t know.
In other words, we’ve all known a person who, say, in school would continually talk about how the class was so easy and how they aced the exam … but ended up consistently failing the tests. That’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Basically, Trump knows so little, he doesn’t even know he knows so little.
But if that were the only thing affecting Trump, that’d be easy. Unfortunately, Fry’s not done. After explaining the Dunning-Kruger Effect, he goes into Trump’s salience bias. Salience bias is a fancy way of saying what we already know to be true: People pay attention to the salacious. After all, which story would you rather read:
They’re both the same story, told much the same way. But the Raw Story headline sounds way, way more urgent. The Raw Story headline makes it sound like the world could end right this very second. On the other hand, The Economic Times headline makes it sound like an asteroid could hit Earth — but that it’s nothing to worry about. The Economic Times headline is more accurate — but also more boring.
The Salience Bias isn’t only Trump’s fault: It’s the media’s too. After all, we’re the ones coming up with these sorts of headlines designed to entice you to click. (We’re pretty sure you wouldn’t have read this article were the headline “Stephen Fry Explains Different Forms of Cognitive Bias.”)
But here’s where it goes wrong with Trump. While he’s drawn (like all of us) to interesting headlines, Trump doesn’t often seem to read beyond the headline. It’s not a stretch to think that if someone showed Trump the Raw Story headline, he’d be giving speeches about how we need to totally Armageddon the deadly asteroid hurtling towards us right this very minute.
There’s an additional trouble with Trump and the Salience Bias. According to Newsweek, Trump’s staffers will include fake stories in his briefings. So even if Trump does read the full story, it’s bunk anyway.
This also feeds into Stephen Fry’s third point: The Mere Exposure Effect. That means that the more you hear something or see something, the more you believe it to be true. Trump’s not a victim of this one, though — it’s one of his favorite tools in his rhetorical toolbox. Ever notice how when Trump speaks, he repeats everything over and over? He’s taking advantage of this effect.
Let’s take a look at one of Trump’s greatest hits — the bizarre, nonsensical claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. There’s no evidence for it. There’s loads of evidence to the contrary. But because Trump and other folks kept harping on “show me the birth certificate,” the claim got enough traction that Obama actually did release his birth certificate. Basically enough people heard this idiotic claim enough that they decided that there must be something to it — otherwise they wouldn’t have heard so much about it.
Thankfully, all is not lost. Fry ends the video with a few ways to fight these biases. One of the best is getting people to feel good before telling them information that conflicts with their worldview. He cites an FBI negotiator who talks about the importance of a smile. He also cites a study that discovered people were more open to new information after they’d been told to remember something that made them feel good about themselves.
But finally, Fry’s most important thing to add is that the world is getting better. Even though things look bad now, by many, many metrics we’re better off than we were 50 years ago as a society. And sometimes that’s all you need to know. Just keep swimming.
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