How does a post-truth world work? Some psychological findings may be useful. (The Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘post-truth’ is ‘Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ The Dictionary labelled it the word of the year 2016.)

This columnist is greatly perplexed by how in today’s post-truth world people hold views or which are not true, which may be contradictory but which are held with a tenacity which belies their falsehood. This is sometimes called ‘truthiness’; the views are believed to be true because they confirm beliefs. But that is a label, what is going on? This is a followup of some earlier writings of mine (and others).

To help me understand I have described below some of the psychological findings of cognitive bias important in behavioural economics.

As far as I know, all have been demonstrated in tightly controlled experiments. It is, however, a leap from the laboratory to application in a post-truth world.

Anchoring: describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the ‘anchor’) when making decisions. Once an anchor is set, there is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor. Example: A subject is given a random number (say the outcome of a spin of the chocolate wheel) and subsequently asked to estimate a fact (say the number of countries in Africa). The estimate is affected by the random number. Comment: That means that the information that one is given may influence one’s beliefs about another matter, even though it is misleading or irrelevant. By choosing seemingly related information the presenter (often a politician) can greatly influence belief even more.

The endowment effect: People ascribe additional value to things merely because they own them. Example: Experiments involve mugs which people are given randomly; subsequently the owners value their mugs more than those who did not receive them. Here is a more complicated example as set out by John Key in John Rougham’s biography. ‘Most people take their profits too early and cut their losses too late. If they buy a house for $500,000 and a month later somebody offers them $600,000, it is human nature to take the money and dine out on their good fortune. Conversely, if they put that $500,000 house on the market and the best offer it brought was $350,000, they would hold onto it. A good dealer would not. As soon as he realised the asset was losing value he would get what he could for it and put the money into a new, hopefully better, investment.’

Framing: When one seeks to explain an event, the understanding often depends on a frame of reference. Example: The way a willingness to donate organs is asked affects responses. Austrians have an opt-out provision; Germany has opt-in. Almost all (99%) Austrians agree to donate after their death, but only 12% of Germans. Another example is a VUW earthquake study in which participants judged more risky 1600 dead in 500 years over a 10% chance of 1600 dead in 50 years, despite the two being logically equivalent. Comment: Those who structure the reference frames – the way the choices are offered – influence the responses.

Loss aversion: The tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. Some studies have suggested that losses are twice as psychologically powerful as gains. Example: People judge it better to not lose $5 than to find $5. Comment: In their evaluation of the impact of policy changes, economists value losses offsetting a gain at one-for-one. Many favourable policies under this tradeoff might be unfavourable if the two-for-one ratio was used. Thus trade deals without compensation may not be as overall favourable as is claimed.

The planning fallacy: Predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias underestimating the time needed. Comment: One hardly needs examples.

Heuristics: Simple rules which people often use to make decisions when optimal decisions require complicated calculations. These rules work well under most circumstances, but they can lead to systematic deviations from logic, probability or rational choice theory. Comment: Economists tend to assume the heuristics are near optimal They are not always. Presumably heuristics are more important when one is ‘thinking fast’ (as Daniel Kahneman described it).

Hyperbolic discounting: In economic terms it leads to time-inconsistent decisions: that is, with no change in information the individual changes their decisions through time. Comment: This is for a column in its own right.

Prospect theory brings together many of the above phenomena. It is complex, but people make probabilistic decisions in a systematic way, but not in the way that is assumed by rational economic man. Comment: Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work, with Amos Tversky, developing prospect theory.

The following list is of cognitive biases which may not seem particularly relevant to economics, but may be relevant to understanding what is going on in politics. (They also have relevance in commerce. For instance share traders who were over-confident do worse on the long run in making profits.)

Confirmation bias: The tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. 

Hindsight bias: Sometimes called the 'I-knew-it-all-along' effect, is the inclination to see past events as being predictable and even inevitable, including events that they previously saw as unlikely; the US election result is an example. .

Self-serving bias: The tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests.

Status quo bias: An emotional bias preferring the current state of affairs. Comment: Since the state of affairs is changing it means people tend to adjust too slowly to a change.

Belief bias: When one's evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by their belief in the truth or falsity of the conclusion. Comment: Truthiness.

Some of the above apply strongly to the angries. Most obviously, if there is loss aversion they may be twice as angry as the beneficiaries feel pleased about a policy change.

Second, the endowment effect, loss aversion, hyperbolic discounting, prospect theory and status quo bias suggest that people are inherently conservative. Yet the status quo is being continually undermined; we are often ill prepared to cope with that change.

That is where the political rhetoric comes in. Use of a number of the above ideas such as anchoring, framing, confirmation bias and belief bias can be used to shape views into a way which is not necessarily coherent. (While our interest here is political debate, there are few in marketing who do not use these principles.)

Does this progress our understandings of the state of populist reactions? The puzzle is, though (to adapt the Red Queen slightly), how can some people – Trump supporters are an obvious example – believe as many as six contradictory things before breakfast?



Comments (16)

by Antoine on January 05, 2017

There's another one where people are more convinced than they should be by an argument that is stated forcefully.

by Charlie on January 05, 2017

Brian, I wouldn't worry too much about this 'post truth' phenomenon.

People are just people - just the same as they always have been. Homo Sapiens is just another primate, admittedly with slightly improved cognitive powers. When I see a woman in high heels or a man in a ridiculously impractical sports cars, I know things are just the same as they always have been: Irrational and driven mainly by mammalian mating & nurturing instincts.

So what's changed and why has this come to the fore just now?

I think the difference now is that we can talk back, just as I am now. We can express our personal views to a global public. No longer do we have to passively listen to a handful of broadcasters who dictate public opinion.

It represents chaos and freedom at the same time. 

It also represents a massive threat to authority figures in media: They don't like having their view of things questioned, contradicted and in some cases even ridiculed.

So it's old media that have coined the term 'post-truth' but what it really means is 'post their truth'.

It's absolutely wonderful!  :-)

Happy 2017


by Dennis Frank on January 05, 2017
Dennis Frank

Well put, Charlie, that's a key dimension to the situation indeed.  So the upside is more diversity in the social ecosystem, making the culture more fertile, and a crowd-sourcing of wisdom (okay, call me an optimist).

Downside is an increase in contagious crowd-driven hysteria driven by sociopaths who issue the right complex memes into the mix at the right time, reminding us of Sartre's phrase `hell is other people'.

Minor technical quibble:  as Wikipedia reminds us, "Modern humans are the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens".  But some of us are postmodern humans, of course.  At the risk of seeming excessively optimist, one could apply the label Homo sapiens sapiens sapiens to this group.  But doing so would imply that Derrida & the French Deconstructionists were sapient.  Nah, I withdraw the suggestion.

by Charlie on January 05, 2017

Agreed Dennis. The cure to the ailments to mention is an improved and more relevant education.



by Richard Keller on January 05, 2017
Richard Keller


Well done to list and briefly describe all those cognitive bias proclivities, but how have you used them to explain your 'great perplexity'?  Please go on; in fact, if you are greatly perplexed then you have an obligation to delve further into it. 

Charlie has asked the obvious question:  So what's changed and why has this come to the fore just now?  The first thing to say here is that the Oxford Dictionary definition of 'post-truth' doesn't really say much about 'just now'.  The word might be 'just now', but their definition isn't.   '. . . appeals to emotion and personal belief' have been a part of politics, in fact just about any aspect of human culture throughout history.  So the definition doesn't help us explain why the new word is the word of the year.  Again, why has this come to the fore just now?  Charlie's explanation is OK, but weak.  Please have more a go at it, thanks, Brian.

Others have had a go at change.  For example, Naomi Klein, "This Changes Everything".   I'd say that was having a real go at it. 

by Lee Churchman on January 06, 2017
Lee Churchman


I don't like the term "post-truth", because the people we accuse of it do have beliefs, and they think these beliefs are true or somewhat true (it's hard to see how they could be beliefs otherwise). "Anti-rational" would be better to describe some of them. But I do not think that is what is going on with "post-truth" politics and I think it is a big mistake to look at it in terms of irrationality. Yes, the internet has enabled kookiness and flakiness, but that is only part of it.

Rather, I think 'post truth' politics is mostly a highly rational (and ancient)l political strategy, rather than an epistemic strategy. Plato characterised the Greek sophists as creating a simulacrum of rational discourse as a means of getting what they wanted. As I said in the last thread, if adhering to the rules of rational public discourse means you lose, then you don't do it. The constant gaslighting, accusing opponents of doing what you are actually doing, and so on should be seen in that light. As someone said, Trump should be taken seriously, but not literally. 

Trump is a sophist. He made his opponents expend vast amounts of time and energy on refuting claims that Trump himself does not really believe – this was a political rope-a-dope. Most people who voted for him likely know that it is a vote for lower taxes, gun rights, less welfare for "those people", and above all a vote for sticking it to the liberal class. Trying to engage with these people is missing the point. 



by Tim Watkin on January 06, 2017
Tim Watkin

This depresses the hell out of me. I suspect Lee is right in large part and I hate to see that approach victorious. Those are the tactics of the bully and the cheat. 

And yeah, it's not an ideal phrase. But the power of calling it 'post-truth' is that 'speaking truth to power' and 'fact-checking' used to depower these demagogues. Last year that failed and it shifts the ground we've walked on for more than half a century.

If a candidate lied outright to the public, he/she was held to account by journalists or balanced/mitigated by counter-arguments.

Now, as news sources fragment, some people never get to see those counter-arguments. And the rise of unbalanced publications or websites pushing (largely) only one side of certain stories mean facts and independent reportage is undermined. The lie is allowed to stand, or is even justified. The line between news and opinion is blurred beyond recognition.

As Charlie says, chaos and freedom. I don't want to bring an argument from another thread in here, but... I just can't let Charlie's lazy swipe at all media go unanswered. It's so irresponsible to dismiss the fourth estate as all self-interested power-trippers. As flawed as it is, it's work and trust in it is as core to our democracy as our faith in parliament and the judiciary. Of course we should question these institutions. Journalists do the job they do because they want to challenge assumptions and test power, so all this stuff spouted by people like Charlie is completely at odds with the reality I've lived in newsrooms for 30 years.

Charlie, what do you do for a living and do you think I could/should condemn your entire profession without having lived it day in, day out? 

And yes, people can express opinions more. Well, they've always been able to do that in countries such as ours. But now there's a greater audience for them. But sadly people don't feel the need to inform their own opinions, even though their power has increased. 

And people also have access to all those ill-informed and purposefully faked sources, and yet don't do the hard yards of figuring out which to trust.

I hugely evidence-based independent news from a range of sources. I hugely value analysis and opinion from a wide range of informed sources and the greater access we have to them these days. The Spectator and the Economist... The Nation mag and The New Statesman... The Guardian, Time, and many more professionals. And yes, I value new outlets with informed views that challenge me with ideas i wouldn't have seen 20 years ago.

But the huge danger is equating those professional, independent sources with the fakers, ranters and even the ill-informed analysts who label their stories news. The internet has given them licence to pretend they are something they aren't.

They may as well be judges setting up their own courtrooms and passing their own sentences... yet so many people are taking them seriously. Some are even delighting in it, dancing as Rome burns behind them. And so the damage is done.

So it's not about old media being scared of sharing or losing power. That's been going on for 20 years at least. It's not about 'our truth' and 'their truth'; that's relativism gone-mad. While there's always a filter and human error in any coverage, there is also a thing called truth that stands outside of party or opinion. the line is between those who respect that and those who don't.

The concern for people like me is the wobbliness those who don't respect independent truth are causing our democracy and how some politicians are willing to exploit that for their own power and agenda. 


by Antoine on January 06, 2017


> The concern for people like me is the wobbliness those who don't respect independent truth are causing our democracy and how some politicians are willing to exploit that for their own power and agenda.

I wager most of the people you refer to don't accept the 'old media' as a real source of 'independent truth'. For that, I think the buck has to stop with 'old media' to some extent.



by Tim Watkin on January 07, 2017
Tim Watkin

Antoine... I utterly agree and fervently disagree!

The 'old media' had and had many flaws. But, for a start, it's an error to generalise it as one creature. Fox, say, is very different from The Economist, which is very different from The Guardian. I know which I think has done most to damage the reputation for independence!

As I noted, journalists filter and have biases, some media take sides, and as newsrooms have shrunk standards have fallen... and yet...

Underpinning the bulk of all of that work is a professionalism, a commitment to evidence and facts being gold, of truth (as it can best be gathered) and accuracy. By focusing on those old media failings, we are disregarding all of those things that are so valuable. We are throwing out the baby with the bathwater as people turn to other sources which don't have those ethics and standards and yet treat them as truth-tellers. That is coming at a cost to democracy worldwide.

by Antoine on January 07, 2017

> a professionalism, a commitment to evidence and facts being gold, of truth (as it can best be gathered) and accuracy

You take (to a greater or lesser extent) your professionalism, your evidence and your facts, and then, necessarily, in order to get them down on the page or the screen, you pass them through your world view. That is the problematic step because, to the extent that your world view has diverged from that of a reader (watcher, listener), what comes out the end is no longer credible to them.


by Brian Easton on January 08, 2017
Brian Easton

I did not mean to imply these phenomenon are new or new in public life. I observed – and was puzzled by – them in the Rogernomics era, for instance, What I find helpful is that psychologists have systematically identified the underlying behaviour and I wanted to share their findings with you all.

Nor did I want to imply this behaviour occurs only among the masses. The elite exhibits it too – hence my choice of the Rogernomics illustration in the previous paragraph. (We all suffer from it as Kahneman and Tversky tell us.)

The issue before us, seems to be that new communications technology (the social media) seems to have unlocked the behaviour among the masses in their public involvement. (The historian in me wonders whether the populism we saw in the Interwar Period was a consequence of the new broadcasting technologies?)

by Tim Watkin on January 10, 2017
Tim Watkin

Antoine, I'm afraid I don't get your point. What you're saying is self-evident and just repeats back what I wrote, so I'm not sure if you're trying to say something else, but... the implication seems to be that the 4th estate is a waste of space and of no use. 

Any reportage (be it Watergate or the Golden Globes) is done by humans and so goes through a filter. That's also true of science or any other pursuit that seeks neutrality. By definition, news and current affairs is, always has been and always will be "problematic" for just that reason. But that's nothing new. My question is why this is loss of trust is happening now and my point is that, while the media is as flawed as it has always been, a commitment to journalistic principles still sets the profession apart from the ranters, lobbyists in disguise and fake news practitioners and we should not underestimate the value of that.


by Tim Watkin on January 10, 2017
Tim Watkin

Brian, I'd love someone to study that question. Have we seen this before and what provoked it? 

by Brian Easton on January 11, 2017
Brian Easton

Sorry, Tim, cant help. It was provoked by practice of looking back at history for parallel phenomenon. The populism of the 1930s is an obvious parallel. 

by Dennis Frank on January 17, 2017
Dennis Frank

Oxfam made the headlines again with its latest attempt to apply moral suasion to the World Economic Forum & I happened upon an interesting critique ( which the publisher promotes it as “The truth behind that Oxfam statistic about inequality and the world’s eight richest people”.

Seems more like truthiness to me. So Oxfam reckoned the 62 richest folk globally had the same wealth collectively as half of humanity last year, whereas this year they reckon 8 guys do? One suspects lies, damned lies, and statistics – I doubt the situation has really changed that much in twelve months.

Like Tim, I prefer the truth & the media that report it.  So Brian, are Oxfam telling the truth?  Did they tell it last year?  Has the situation really changed so drastically in the interim??  Could be Mission Impossible (even for a top economist) ascertaining the truth, which raises another interesting question:  are Oxfam morally wrong if they are faking this news?

Consider that last one rhetorical.  I believe propaganda designed to raise consciousness about global inequality is a good idea (propaganda designed to shift everyone from grievance mode to solution-design mode would be a thousand times better).  Oxfam's news seems truthy, not fake - even allowing that it may indeed actually be fake.  From a moral perspective, it's probably way more helpful than harmful, in which case it enhances public morality...


by Dennis Horne on January 20, 2017
Dennis Horne

Man has not changed but communication has. Birds of a feather flock together "bigly"
2016 Temperature Records. — gavin [Schmidt, NASA] 19 January 2017

"To nobody’s surprise, all of the surface datasets showed 2016 to be the warmest year on record... Coming as this does after the record warm 2015, and record warm 2014, the three records in row might get you to sit up and pay attention."

Do deniers sit up and pay attention. Nah, they lie down.

Deniers believe this is not science, that scientists have abandoned the “scientific method” — as they understand it. It’s the old story.

Dr John Snow took the handle off the pump that was spreading cholera in Soho, London. The authorities replaced it because the oral-faecal method of transmission of disease was too unpleasant to contemplate. People preferred to believe it was “bad air”.

Now we’ve got “bad air”, the truth is too unpleasant to contemplate.

Once a few people on bad water, now everybody is on bad air.  And the Internet. That's a qualitative change in the dynamics of human behaviour and our future.

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