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12 December 2019updated 23 Jun 2021 7:11am

Why voters trust certain politicians, even when they know they’re lying

By Will Dunn

Immediately after the final leaders’ debate on Friday night, YouGov polled 1,322 people who had just watched the last showdown between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. Corbyn led Johnson by 28 points on the question of which leader seemed more “in touch with ordinary people”, and by ten points on the question of who seemed more “trustworthy”. But on the question of whom seem “more Prime Ministerial”, Johnson somehow came out 24 points ahead. How did that happen? Does the British voter not look for a prime minister to be capable or listening or telling the truth?

One explanation is that there is a big difference between what we take “trustworthy” to mean as a word, and the psychology of what it actually means to trust someone.

This difference is illustrated by a new working paper published by Joseph Marks of University College London and Stephen Martin of Columbia University, who asked 100 voters – evenly split along the Leave/Remain divide – to assign “messenger traits”, including trustworthiness, to the party leaders. The voters were also taken through a process that established whether they thought Johnson had lied about the reason for proroguing parliament in September. Nearly three-quarters of Leave voters acknowledged that Johnson had lied to the Queen and the public, but they still rated him as more trustworthy than any other politician.

Martin says this contradiction can be explained by the other messenger traits that the voters applied to the two leaders. These included prominence, competence, dominance, warmth and emotional openness. “These messenger traits are largely rules of thumb, or heuristics, that determine whether we should pay attention to someone or not,” he explains. “When we’re faced with a choice, something that we either don’t understand well or where there’s conflict between claims that are being made, we stop listening to what’s being said and focus our attention on who is saying [it]. The messenger becomes the message.”

The trait that makes Johnson “trustworthy” to people who acknowledge that he is a liar is his perceived dominance. Decades of research, Martin says, have shown that “the frame of mind of an individual or an electorate will have a significant influence over who they are likely to turn to. In situations of uncertainty, anxiety, crisis, we’re much more likely to pay attention to a dominant messenger.”

“Lots of us confuse truth and trust”, he explains. “We think they’re either the same thing, or they have some relationship – which is not true.” In etymology the two concepts may be linked but in psychology, “trustworthiness is essentially our ability to predict someone else’s future behaviour”.

To say that decisions are based on irrational shortcuts is not a patronising dismissal of Leave voters, or any voters. Since the early 1970s, behavioural scientists have established that most decisions – including medical diagnoses, court judgements and policymaking – are made using heuristics and irrational biases. And while the bias towards Johnson is irrational at the level of the study, for every voter to make a detailed appraisal of which candidate lies more would be impossible. Instead, Leave voters have made a decision about which politician they can trust to deliver their desired political outcome.

Once the messenger heuristic has allowed the decision to be made, says Martin, factual accuracy “is the icing on the cake.”

The messenger is becoming increasingly more important than the message as the world becomes ever more swamped by information. Martin says this is happening at an alarming rate; in 2008, his team studied how many times per day they were “exposed to some sort of message or claim that was trying to capture our attention [or] shape our attitude”, and found that the average person was faced with up to 2,500 potential decisions per day. Last year a colleague of Martin’s estimated that this figure had, for some people, risen to tens of thousands.

“We are exposed to this sea of information, and almost invariably it’s conflicting. To navigate your way through that, to say what you can believe and reliably dismiss, is an impossibility. So what emerges in terms of importance is not the content of the message, but the traits of the messenger.”

Marks and Martin began studying how this process applies to political decision-making three years ago, as the messenger heuristic appeared to take over other long-held views of the American voting public. Martin cites polling by the Brookings Institute, which found that in 2011, only 30 per cent of the most conservative American voters – white evangelicals – believed an elected official could commit an “immoral act”, such as a public lie, and continue to fulfil their duties. But by October 2016, just before they voted for Donald Trump, this group had completely changed its mind, with 72 per cent deciding that a candidate they knew to be personally immoral could still be a moral president. Voters dramatically reoriented their views to suit their preferred candidate.

“In data we’ve collected in the US,” observes Martin, “in some instances Trump’s trustworthiness actually goes up the more he lies.”

Martin calls the messenger traits “dials” that affect how a person or a population views a candidate based on their emotional state. Candidates that score higher on “soft messenger” traits, such as warmth or connectedness, gain the attention of groups that have a high degree of “psychological safety”. A climate of uncertainty and fear, by contrast, favours “hard messengers” such as Trump and Johnson, even when they lack influential traits such as competence or attractiveness.

“Truth,” he reflects, “seems to not matter at all”.

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