The psychology of information Why lies are more believable than truths 1170x400

The psychology of information: Why lies are more believable than truths

Articles & Insights Jun 04 2020

By Dustin Eno, COO and Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response

Navigate Response, a subsidiary of Witt O’Brien’s, shares our passion for helping clients develop resilience. Together our experts offer clients best-in-class reputation management when a crisis occurs. Our two companies bring maritime crisis communicators and operational crisis responders together under one roof for the first time.

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Even the most cynical people, those who claim they don’t believe there is any objective reporting in the media, tend to accept the validity and believability of a story if its tone, subject and approach reflect their own beliefs.

Believability is hugely subjective and can be influenced. Information about COVID-19 is a great example. Around the world, opinion polls repeatedly find that people’s beliefs about whether masks help to prevent the spread of the disease, or whether their country is managing the pandemic well are significantly impacted by their political affiliation.

In crisis communications, we must ensure that the truth is more believable than the biased narratives of ignorance or “campaigning” which other parties may promote. The world is sufficiently complicated that people cannot possibly scrutinize every bit of information, but how do people decide what to believe and what to be suspicious about?

It’s rarely a conscious choice, but rather one which depends on some degree of instinct – the psychology of which can be understood with reference to two key variables:

1. Ingroup relationships. Social identity theory tells us that we are more likely to believe (and respect) those people who are like us – our in-group. For example, Brits are more likely to trust the BBC, while Americans may trust CNN, and at the extremes, North Koreans may believe the news from their state-sponsored broadcaster.

Strategic takeaway: To influence an audience, find ways to connect with your audience (language, age, gender, cultural reference points, shared experiences, etc.) and communicate through a channel that is close to them or one that they trust – this is partly why trusted local publications are so important in a crisis.

2. Preconceptions of the world. No matter how open-minded we pride ourselves on being, we all have preconceptions about what is, and is not, believable. Such preconceptions can be very general (e.g. “people are lazy”), can apply to specific groups of people (e.g. “Canadians are very polite”) or can apply to an individual (e.g. “everything that politician says is a lie”).

Strategic take away:
No matter the truth of any situation, there are some things which will be believable to an audience and others which will not. A successful communications strategy depends on making the truth (or more sinisterly a lie) believable to an audience, and to do this we must understand how the target audience perceives the situation.

For example, imagine that an audience believes that “oil companies don’t care about polluting the environment; they only care about profit.” If they’re told that “oil company X prioritizes environmental protection in all its decisions,” the audience probably won’t believe us, and we can expect to be met with cynicism and hostility. To be believed, we must find a way to make our message believable to our target audience.

For instance, we could frame our story in the context of legislation – e.g. “We comply with all environmental legislation in all our initiatives” – this works if the audience believes that environmental legislation is strong. Or better still, we could flatter the activism of the skeptics – e.g. “We know that environmental protection is a priority for our customers, therefore, we prioritize environmental protection in all our decisions”.

Frustratingly, having the “truth” on your side is not always enough to enlist audience trust. However, if you understand the psychology of the audience you can still win that trust. If I figure out how to present something as coming from an in-group and fit it into an audience’s preconceptions of the world, I can make them believe almost anything – even a lie (never a good idea in crisis communications, but sadly a tactic used by some).

The people who spread misinformation (e.g. COVID-19 is caused by 5G, COVID-19 was created in an American lab to destabilize China, COVID-19 was created in a Chinese lab to destabilize America) have effectively manipulated the psychology of information. We can only expect the truth to win out if our messaging is adapted so that it is “believable” for the audiences we’re trying to reach.

Please contact us at covidhelp@wittobriens.com for further information or to talk to an expert.

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Dustin Eno

Dustin Eno


About Dustin Eno:

Dustin has over 12 years of communications experience including as the head of crisis communications for the largest wildfire management center in British Columbia, Canada. In this role he managed media and social media relations for destructive wildfires and property loss, routinely filling the Information Officer role in the incident command system.

As Navigate Response's Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Crisis Response Manager, Dustin manages the media response for numerous shipping incidents, coordinates the operations of our global network and is one of the company’s lead media trainers. Dustin is also an award-w inning workshop presenter and public speaker.