Does the truth matter anymore?
The truth doesn’t matter anymore in political discourse around economic policy in the UK due to the cognitive processes of fluent processing and mere exposure effects. Jonathan Hopkin’s and Ben Rosamond’s article (2018) from political economy purports the concurrent rise of falsehoods within political discourse and the upsurge of austerity as the overriding feature of macroeconomic policy is not merely coincidental. Although there is compelling evidence that reckless fiscal policy and excessive spending as causes for debt escalation are nonsense, these claims are extensively believed by the public. The article theorises this is due to the publics preference in believing more familiar and concrete concepts, such as tightening belts from methods for the household budgets and applying these to the wider economy. This is favourable for the Conservative Party, who forge their reputation for economic capability, to reinforce their programme of austerity despite the social costs. Norbert Schwarz’s, Eryn Newman’s and William Leach’s (2016) psychological review provides empirical evidence for this by drawing on the psychological theory that fluency and familiarity have been shown to lead to the mere exposure effect; humans inherently prefer to believe information familiar to them, consistent with their previous beliefs, as well as making a coherent story, all of which austerity and tight fiscal policy facilitate. The integration of these two approaches is vital because empirical evidence must back up a social phenomenon, whilst psychological theory seems irrelevant without application in an observable environment.
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Fluency and familiarity have been shown to lead to the mere exposure effect. This is the psychological phenomenon by which people cultivate a preference for things simply because they are familiar (Zajonc, 1968). Schwarz, Newman and Leach (2016) conclude that “when it is easy, it seems familiar, and familiar feels true.” People attend to the subjective experience of easy mental processing, drawing conclusions on the basis of what feels right, instead of actively searching for deeper information. So, “erroneous beliefs are difficult to correct” (Schwarz, Newman and Leach, 2016). Hopkins and Rosamond argue that in the case of austerity, ill-informed voters struggle with the complexity of macroeconomics; they are likely to shun abstract concepts such as total demand and liquidity preference (the Keynesian theory of the demand for money) and swap these for the concrete thinking of the household budget, where a decline in economic activity is best dealt with by austerity “since deficits will not have any stimulus effect on revenue” (Hopkin and Rosamond, 2018). This incompetence to conceptualise the economy in total produces the mistaken conclusion that economy-wide spending cuts are required in a downturn. This trend that has been noted in political science is underpinned by the psychological phenomenon of how fluent processing leads to the mere exposure effect. This mediates the weakness of political research being deemed biased and immeasurable, relying on qualitative methods and conclusions having a motive.
The content characteristics of complexity and flow of an argument are the main factors contributing to this. The review devises a criteria for truth evaluation in individuals, of which compatibility with one’s own beliefs, social consensus, and coherency are central. Fluent processing is influenced largely by whether an argument is compatible with what one believes. People assess belief consistency by relying on their own feelings, which is an easier course than assessing the arguments match with general knowledge, which would provide a more accurate truth. Austerity and the familiar ‘tightening of belts’ is a familiar and successful method in much of the publics personal lives, so when they are then presented with two opposing beliefs about economic policy the choice is simple. Either austerity (reduction in public expenditure), which many economists have shown to be unsuccessful, or expansionary fiscal policy (increasing government expenditure as a response to recession), which has been shown to succeed (Seidman, 2012). The public are more likely to believe austerity, as this matches their previous belief about how to deal with economic problems in the home. When the new information matches one’s beliefs, processing is easy, and people tend to nod along. The public have been given a huge intellectual burden in the void that the decline of ideologically coherent parties have left (Hopkin and Rosamond, 2018), and most do not have the time or capacity to seek additional information, so choose the less effortful option of relying on ones feelings.
When something is inconsistent with existing beliefs, people tend to stumble and take longer to read it, and have trouble processing it. Information that is inconsistent with one’s beliefs also produces a negative affective response. Further, this limits the perceived coherence of the message: it is not a good story. People are inclined to believe things that are consistent with their own beliefs and knowledge. Opposing beliefs interfere with the processing of the information, which limits the perceived coherence of the message—if it is not a good story it is less likely to be believed (Schwarz, Newman and Leach, 2016). The claim that much of the public believe lies about economic policy is not simply due to stubbornness in partisanship or the efforts of the conservative government, as political science may purport, but it is underpinned by fluent processing and the mere exposure effect integral to human cognition. Psychology cannot prove this alone, and there must be an application demonstrated through social science, which demonstrates how this plays out in real life. Politicians’ defence of austerity is largely rejected by the economics profession (Seidman, 2012) and revolves around close to home notions of ‘tightening belts’ and ‘putting our house in order’, accompanied by claims that ‘there is no magic money tree’, notwithstanding the prevalent use of central bank money creation since the 2008 financial crisis (Hopkin and Rosamond, 2018). These phrases and ideas fit together with the household solution and so make a coherent story that immediately makes sense to them. Expansionary fiscal policy in the economy whilst relying on austerity in the home makes a hugely incoherent story and so is much less likely to be believed.
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To conclude, the truth does not matter anymore, in relation to economic policy in government. The adoption of austerity into economic policy to supposedly alleviate the economy has been largely rejected by economists and it has in fact been proven that expansionary fiscal policy is more successful. Contrary to this, it is widely believed in the public that austerity is a necessity, as perpetuated by Conservative campaigns, and will get our economy to a better place. This seems in line with the familiar and concrete dialect of tightening belts to alleviate financial problems in the household. This is due to fluent processing and the mere exposure effect, where humans inherently preferring to believe information which is familiar to them, consistent with their previous beliefs and general knowledge, and makes a coherent story, all of which austerity and tight fiscal policy fit with.
- Hopkin, J. and Rosamond, B. (2018) Post-truth Politics, Bullshit and Bad Ideas: ‘Deficit Fetishism’ in the UK, New Political Economy. 23rd edn. Pp 641-665. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.
- Schwarz, N., Newman, E., & Leach, W. (2016). Making the truth stick & the myths fade: Lessons from cognitive psychology. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2(1), pp. 85–95.
- Seidman, L. (2012). Keynesian stimulus versus classical austerity: Review of Keynesian Economics, Inaugural Issue, pp. 77-92
- Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2, Pt.2), 1–27.
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