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When lying works better than the truth 

The psychology behind the popularity of McCain, Palin and Bush

John McCain and Sarah Palin have repeatedly lied in campaign appearances and advertising — to such a degree that pundits as far right as Karl Rove have expressed embarrassment.

McCain and Palin unabashedly support most of the policies of George W. Bush, the least popular president in American history. In some areas, they are to the right of Bush.

Meanwhile, the economy is in its worst shape since 1929. The only proposed solution would direct $700 billion of taxpayers' dollars toward failing institutions. And the Bush administration wants the money without any kind of accountability – just as it demanded for the Iraq invasion.

It's not surprising that the great majority of Americans think Democrats would do a better job running the nation. Yet Barack Obama has been unable to maintain a substantial lead in the polls. Why, in the face of such evidence that Republican policies have failed, are so many people reluctant to vote Democratic?

One explanation is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which has been mentioned in a lot of recent psychology articles, including Robert Burton's "My candidate, myself," in Sept. 22's Salon.com.

The Dunning-Kruger effect was observed in a 1999 study. Basically, Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger documented that the more ignorant and "incompetent" a person is in completing logical tasks, the more he will overestimate his own level of skill. He will also usually think he is smarter than other people, even when confronted with facts to the contrary.

Likewise, more informed "competent" people tend to assume just the opposite – that they know less than they do. They also assume that other people are more informed and skilled than they actually are.

It's not hard to see how this applies to politicians and voters themselves. Bush infamously ignored the advice of those who told him that invading Iraq would likely ensnare us in a Vietnam-like quagmire. Even after this became demonstrable fact, he denied it. Then, John Kerry became the subject of a smear campaign whose falsehood was easily revealed by a cursory examination of the facts. But voters re-elected Bush in 2004, apparently unable to distinguish facts from lies.

The current Republican candidates obviously know how this works. Every newspaper and network of any credibility has exposed the lie of Palin's "bridge to nowhere" story and her claim to oppose earmarks. They have likewise exposed McCain's craven reversal of his policies to attract the religious right, which he denies. Yet both candidates continue to repeat the lies, and, as in the case of Bush, a great many voters are happy to stand behind them. In fact, it appears that the more they lie, the more support they garner.

It's obvious that Bush really believes himself superior. And he makes no bones about attributing his superiority to his "gut" feelings. But Burton's article in Salon cites other studies that have shown that feelings of absolute certainty are never rational.

Palin's Pentecostal background undoubtedly predisposes her to Bush's aggrandizement of "intuition." But I tend to think McCain's reversals and lies are cynically motivated, that he is exploiting the Dunning-Kruger effect among voters, knowing perfectly well he is talking nonsense.

And there's the problem, of course. How do you combat a strategy that has worked so well? Many Democrats suggest that Obama needs to get more aggressive. You could indeed accuse him of being on the other end of the Dunning-Kruger effect by overestimating voters. But a practical explanation is that any outburst will identify him as an "angry black man" to the McCain camp.

Is there any hope? Follow-ups to the Dunning-Kruger study conclude that the "incompetent" can, with training, become more competent. They also simultaneously acknowledge their earlier errors of feeling smarter than everyone else.

Burton advocates subjecting candidates to some kind of testing for competence and awareness of their limitations. That would help but is unlikely to occur as long as the public remains happily ignorant and incompetent. Basic civics and critical thinking need to be stressed again in public education. Until that happens, bald liars and incompetents will continue to dominate much of our government.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For his blog and information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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