Learning that Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump lied doesn’t change supporters’ opinions of them, study finds

When you discover that someone has told a lie, does the discovery change your feeling about that person? If that person is a politician you support, the answer is: probably not.

Briony Swire-Thompson, who is a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern, was part of a team that conducted a study to test whether people would lose faith in politicians who appeared to tell more lies than truths. Swire-Thompson and her colleagues found that, overall, people’s faith was eroded, but only by an “extremely small” amount.

“People’s feelings toward the candidate didn’t shift hardly at all,” Swire-Thompson says. “That was surprising.”

Swire-Thompson and her colleagues presented 1,500 United States residents with a series of statements from either U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat, or President Donald Trump, a Republican. Swire-Thompson said her team chose Sanders and Trump because they’re “the leaders on the [political] left and right.” Half the group got Trump statements and half got Sanders statements.

The researchers gave the groups actual statements made by Trump and Sanders, Swire-Thompson says. In cases where the statement was false or misleading, the researchers labeled it as such and provided people in the study with the correct information alongside the false claim.

Swire-Thompson and her colleagues wanted to see whether people who supported Trump and Sanders would lose faith in the politicians if they were shown many more false statements than true statements. That’s because an earlier study by the same researchers showed that people’s feelings toward Trump didn’t change when they’d been given an equal number of true and false statements.

“We thought that maybe the true and false statements were balancing each other out, in a way,” Swire-Thompson says. So, she and her colleagues wondered, would an unequal ratio tip the scales?

The answer is yes, but barely.

According to the study—the results of which were published this month in the academic journal Political Psychology—feelings toward politicians “did not shift much, if at all, when corrections were encountered in the experiment.”

And, since their first experiment only tested remarks made by Trump, Swire-Thompson and her colleagues were also curious whether party affiliation makes someone more likely to lose faith in their candidate.

The results were the same for Democrats and Republicans, the researchers found.

“The amount of political symmetry we saw was interesting,” Swire-Thompson says. “The results on the right were mirrored on the left.”

Swire-Thompson was part of an international team that includes Stephan Lewandowsky, chair of cognitive psychology in the School of Psychological Science at the University of Bristol; Adam J. Berinsky, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Ullrich K. H. Ecker, associate professor in the School of Psychological Science at the University of Western Australia.

Although the experiment didn’t explicitly test for why people’s opinions didn’t change, Swire-Thompson says it could just be that people don’t have all that much faith in politicians to begin with, so there’s not much room for change.

“Politicians are well-known not to have high credibility scores,” she says.

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.