How We Process Information: Why Politicians Can Overtly Lie and People Still Believe Them

Why do people still believe him if there is so much evidence that proves he is lying?

Over the past few months I heard this sentence (or different iterations of it) on multiple occasions. Whether applied to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Nigel Farage, Álvaro Uribe, Nana Akufo-Ado or John Dramani Mahama, the outrage was always the same. Behavioral economics can actually help in answering this question. By learning how we process information and what we do with it, we can better understand how the media gets to play the role it does and why sometimes it doesn’t help in disproving overtly false statements.

It is commonly believed that the vast amounts of information nowadays available and the way people share information should make it easier to separate falsehood from facts, yet as we saw in the latest American elections, this is usually not the case. Instead of identifying falsehoods, the multiplicity of opinions simply created a cacophony of errors that only after the elections started to be dispelled. Why does this happen?

In the era of internet and information, errors can be propagated and amplified. Combined with belief polarization and one’s likelihood to question news that contradict our prior beliefs (defined below), the likelihood of “liars” being discredited is extremely reduced.

As data consumers, generally, we do not collect dispersed information, contrast (or better yet, triangulate it) and reach a conclusion as to what is the “truth.” On the contrary, we usually fall into information cocoons or information segregation. Basically, we tend to just receive information that aligns or is biased in favor of our previous beliefs. As data consumers, we do not tend to read or watch the news in media outlets that follow a different editorial line. In other words, we are ideologically segregated (this phenomenon can also help explain why we can be convinced that there is a majority when there isn’t, we interact only with those who think like us).

In a surprising 2011 study, Gentzkown and Shapiro found that ideological segregation is even higher in face-to-face interactions than in online interactions. This makes sense insofar, at the end of the day, our friends tend to be somewhat similar to us (people we like). What about Facebook? Our Facebook feed might be representative of our face-to-face interactions, thus being highly segregated as well. The posts we see will not tend to discredit our opinions or the posts that we share ourselves.

As a direct consequence, we obtain one-sided views and enter – as professor Cass Sunstein says – into information cocoons and echo chambers which are, on the first place, a real problem for any democracy, but also a place where amplification of errors, hidden profiles, cascade effects and polarization are inevitable.

The situation becomes a bit more complicated if we add what is called belief polarization into the mix. We have what behavioral economist call “priors”, our beliefs without any information. The “posterior” is our updated belief once we have received information. We tend to think that when presented with the same information, our beliefs will converge. In many instances, this is not the case. We care directly about our beliefs (we are attached to them, we don’t want to relinquish them!) and thus we try to maintain them. Put simply, there are things we want to believe thus we do – we also discard the information that contradicts these beliefs (this is known as motivated belief bias and confirmatory bias).

If a media outlet reports that a certain politician that I dislike in my country is allegedly corrupt, I will probably believe it. But, if it comes out that Emma Watson was involved in the Panama papers scandal, I will probably question it or try to justify it (not that this happened…).

In a famous 1979 study, Lord, Ross, and Lepper conducted an experiment that demonstrated how people examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner. In the study, people holding different beliefs on the capital punishment were presented with two studies, one that seemingly confirmed their prior and one that seemingly contradicted it. The subjects rated the study that contradicted their prior beliefs as less reliable and became more convinced of the veracity of their prior opinions, that is, the subjects, instead of converging into a shared position (or closer position), became more extreme. In other words, belief polarization ensued.

Hypothetically, if I were a Trump supporter and a media outlet presents me with information about the feasibility of building a wall (and Mexicans paying for it) and another media outlet proves that this is almost impossible, I will take the former at face value and discard the latter. In reality though, due to ideological segregation and information cocoons, it is possible that I will not even consume the information that contradicts my prior.

In sum, people believe that they are unbiased information processors, but the reality is that we tend to be recipients of one-sided information, we process information in a biased manner, and even when we receive contradictory information, we become more polarized instead of converge towards one position.

This way of processing data has a direct impact on how media outlets can operate.  If we are not going to discredit media outlets for reporting dubious information, they can care less about their reputation or the veracity of the news they publish (and can rush into publishing without conducting a thorough fact-check first). If they report false news, people who want to believe them will still believe them because they want to do so. Reporting quality, despite the availability of vast information, is then much lower. In fact, as we have seen, some studies suggest that an outlet will be perceived as more truthful if it confirms our priors.


Sources for this article and reading recommendations:

Gentzkow, Mathew and Jesse M. Shapiro. “Competition and Truth in the Market for News.Journal of Economic Perspectives 22 (2008): 133 – 154.

Lord, Charles G., Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper. “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequantly Considered Evidence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 (1979): 2098 – 21-9.

Sunstein, Cass. Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)


[Disclaimer: for this article, I drew heavily from what I studied in my Behavioral Economics class at the Yale School of Management with Prof. Florian Ederer and Prof. Shane Frederick ]


In the past six months, political decisions in several countries have stunned pundits and progressists alike, defied all political expectations, and set social justice and civil rights a few years back.  In England, after a reductionist and disinformation campaign, old white males from peripheral areas proved decisive in the Brexit referendum. In Spain, corruption on corruption scandal was not enough for the president to not be reelected. Not even a terrifying episode involving the minister of interior and the head of the anticorruption office in Catalonia in a fact-fabricating case against political opponents was sufficient to change the political landscape. In Colombia, after a lengthy and complex peace process, the country voted against the peace agreement. Now, in the U.S., Americans have elected a racist, misogynistic, accused-of-sexual-abuse, discriminatory male as President. The worst is that the most likely to be negatively affected by these outcomes are precisely the people who voted for the unpredicted result (with the exception of Colombia, where people affected by the conflict overwhelmingly voted in favor of concluding the peace agreement with the FARC-EP).

It’s time to come to terms with the reality that the social justice values that I and many people in my surroundings espouse are not shared by the majority of the population – in no continent in the world. “Traditional thinking” that is anathema to gender and racial equality, marriage equality and LGTBI rights, environmental justice, and respect and opportunities for people of all abilities is very much alive and influencing the results we are seeing. The fact of the matter is that we are not one percenters but we are certainly part of an intellectual elite who was too blinded by the idea that progress is linear. It is not, it has never been, and it can go in both directions. This American election is the last in a series of political events that demonstrate it.

The easiest reaction to this situation is to despair. Yes, voter dissatisfaction is evident and completely justified. We are doomed, there is nothing we can do against the will of the majority if we want to maintain democracy. But, is it so? During the civil rights movement, public opinion was also divided. In 1965 only 25 percent of Americans cited civil rights as a problem facing the nation. The Voting Rights Act was passed that year. According to Pew Research Center data, “in February 1965 that, when asked about the Civil Rights Act specifically, 42% overall believed the federal government was moving too fast in guaranteeing “Negro” voting rights and the right of “Negroes” (the term used in the question) to be served in public places such as restaurants, hotels and theaters, while just 25% thought it was not moving fast enough.” In England, during the suffragette movement, many women and men became actively involved in the anti-suffragette movement.

For years, as a result of these struggles that defied the status quo and the majority, we saw almost unremitting progress and as a result, we became too complacent. Now, we are left with Donald Trump, Mariano Rajoy, Brexit (and Boris Johnson), and an unstable peace in Colombia. Yet whether these politicians can set us back decades is up to us, the citizens. We need to stop thinking that things will sort out themselves, that “they” (vs. us) won’t actually vote like that. We need to stop complaining over twitter and facebook while we remain seated on our chairs. Clicktivism is not enough. Social media and online petitions are absolutely necessary; they can serve as catalyzers and have a multiplier effect, but in and of themselves they will not trigger change.

We have to deal with the Brexit, with a widely and openly corrupt Spanish government, with a Colombian peace process in tatters, and with a Trump era. But as citizens, we have the power to act as bulwarks against state abuse. We can influence policy. We can act to ensure that new detrimental policies are not implemented. You don’t believe me? Look at what women and men – feminists – managed to achieve both in Spain and Poland. In Spain, a government with a sizable majority tried to pass legislation on abortion that would have severely curtailed women’s ability to decide over their bodies. In Poland, there was a call for such legislation as well (albeit not promoted by government, it almost passed). Regardless, the Spanish minister of Justice championing the legislation at the time (who infamously said in Parliament “what makes a woman be a woman is becoming a mother”) had to resign as a result of the pressures. Thanks to women’s mobilizations in Poland, the fate of the initiative calling for an almost completely ban of abortion was not any better.

This political landscape, if anything, also demonstrates that social justice issues are global. The Brexit, the turn European politics are taking, the electoral campaign in the U.S., and the Colombian referendum had a decisive international dimension. If we want progressive causes to advance – anywhere – we need to globalize our thinking about each one of these issues. We need to be actively involved not only in the matters affecting our “passport nation” (as I like to call it) but in what is affecting social justice causes around the world. Borders are porous and the butterfly effect is very much a reality (the crisis in the Mediterranean or the 2008 financial crisis speak for themselves, no need to elaborate more on that).

Let 2016 be a call to action. This is not the beginning of the end, but the start of a new beginning. Oh, and by the way, looking at demographics, the future of social justice lies on the youth and the feminists (both women and men).

Black, Feminist, Queer, Transgender, Gender non-conforming

“The revolution is black, female, queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming”

– Lhola Amira

Accra is evolving at a fast-pace. Recently named Africa’s capital of cool by the New York Times, the unremitting music (and radio) is joined by a bursting art scene. What characterizes the art scene in this city, however, is its markedly political character. Art is imagined to elicit discussion and it does so in different forms. At Chale Wote – an art festival that should not be missed – artists displayed paintings that called for respect for people with disabilities or screamed #blacklivesmatter (literally). The Accra Theater Workshop put together a play – An African Walks into a Voting Booth – in which artists performed six sketches that satirized Ghanaian elections. The sketches were followed by a debate on the political situation in the country and the director, Efua Sutherland, encouraged both the elder and the youth present in the room to exchange opinions and ideas.

Most recently, Lhola Amira, in collaboration with The Studio Accra, presented “Looking for Ghana & The Red Suitcase.” The performance took place in a white room decorated with underwear hanging from the ceiling, a table in which the artist had her computer, wine, a cutting board with onions, and her notebooks. Amira, who calls herself an utopianist despite a world that remains anti-black and anti-women, read excerpts that were her own as well as texts from others who had resonated with her, yet most of the evening consisted of debate, discussions in which the public expressed their views on what Africa is and what is in it.

Afropolitanism, Afrofuturism, the decolonization agenda, formalized versus honorary people’s knowledge, and the role of education, among many other issues, were discussed. To some, being African was presented as contrary to being Westernized and recovering traditional, “authentic” practices (what is authentic, however, remains unclear); to others, “my Africa is not the Africa in which you must eat fufu and wear kente.” It meant pushing to create local products and stories, “taking pride in what we have,” changing perceptions, and taking back the narrative.

“The idea of these underwear is that you take one and write your heart’s desire. One day, I’ll wear them and give birth to them. I will give birth to your dreams”


To manifest Revolutionary LOVE | A continental working class movement | To truly not give a fuck about nonsense

Across the different artistic expressions that I have witnessed, some themes reoccur with persistence. Firstly, the need to take the narrative back, to construct a system in African terms (sometimes, pan-African terms). Tied to these theme, is the notion of self-pride and self-worth. As Amira put it, currently there is no space to exist as radical self-loving beings.

The third and less obvious theme is the notion of art as “a class thing.” Albeit this is a concern brought up during Amira’s performance, it was less evident but still obvious in the rest. Art has the potential to contribute greatly to social justice – it can be a means to increase self-worth, trigger needed conversations, expose injustices, and advance great causes – but how to do this in a way that reaches all layers of society (or has an impact for all of them) and not just the highly educated elites?

Most of the questions posed remain unanswered and many of the opinions were rapidly contested or build on, yet the fact that these spaces exist demonstrates the wealth in Accra, Ghana, the continent. I am not speaking in terms of material wealth; the wealth resides in the willingness of the youth to engage in dialogue, use art to contest the status quo, and work hard to extend their conversations beyond their own milieu. The revolution will be intergenerational, interclass, feminist, and may I add, for people with different abilities.

“We need to find ways to deconstruct the system and come in plurals. Collaborate.”



This is Priscilla. She is 17 years old, she has just finished high school, and she comes from the north – the poorest region in Ghana – where her mother lives. She now lives with her father in Accra. I was on a run in Legon when she stopped me. She asked me, “do you want to be my friend? The reason why I called you is because I dreamt that I had a white human friend.” Race is a construct, “not an indubitable feature of the world” in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates. But it is one hell of a construct with palpable and far-reaching implications. In this case, as often is, “white” is full of meaning and connotations. I am the white. The privileged one who works (and runs) at possibly one of the most expensive universities on the continent. She is the northern Ghanaian, who doesn’t know what she’ll do now that she has finished high school.

Language, in its full performative function, is revealing. Her use of the word white unmasks the powerful discursive system that evinces the reality of the hegemony of one type of person over the other. That is why I found the juxtaposition with the word human instead of woman, girlfriend, or Oburoni – other structuring categorizations that I was expecting – so fascinating. We are all humans but we are not yet all equal #blacklivesmatter #girlsmatter #Accra#ghana #race #africa

Threads of Art by Yaw Obuobi

The best thing about London is its wealth of art galleries, museums, and cultural events. The Gallery of African Art is currently displaying “Threads of Art” by Ghanaian-British artist Yaw Obuobi. Upon entrance, the pieces catch the spectator’s eye. They are colourful and evocative. Upon closer inspection – and this can only be completely appreciated in person – one sees that the medium of choice is not paint but yarn.

The works of Obuobi speak about many of the most salient issues in the African continent and among the “Afropolitan” community. His works discuss the role of the diaspora and the self, the sense of identity and the perception that one has of the world once s/he has set roots in different parts of the world. Yet his pieces do not speak only to this particular community, the themes are connected to social justice issues that are a product of the global context which we inhabit.

“Our individual perception of the world is dependent on our life’s themes which consist of sub-themes woven together with our life’s script thread.”


Fragmented, 2015. The restorative power of creating a home within the body, of (re) imagining our existence, making peace with the fragmented pieces of our being. […] decolonial imaginaries. Fragmented, but whole.

Artists like Obuobi create a type of art that trascends the innovative technique and the topics represented directly in the artworks or written about in the captions. Obuobi connects the present and the past, the tradition with the current reality of many human beings. He opens up a window for discussion of a global system – a way of interacting between powers, humans, and with the colonial past – that needs to be examined in its own context and over the long durée.





The Death of the “Non-Refoulement”. How the European Union Sentenced Itself and Refugee Law 

On Friday 18th, 2016, European and Turkish leaders reached an agreement to tackle the refugee crisis. The deal contains a series of provisions. Most notably, refugees arriving to Greece will be returned to Turkey. For every Syrian refugee sent back to Turkey, one Syrian in Turkey will be resettled in the EU. This deal, that commodifies humans and violates international law, relies on fictions and assumptions that are easily debunked. With its signing, European leaders are also signing the death certificate of a European Union that for years has prided itself as being a defender of human rights.

The deal starts by introducing a fiction in the way individuals trying to reach the EU are treated. They are now considered “irregular migrants” as opposed to refugees or asylum seekers. There has been a lot of debate on how we categorize these individuals. Are they refugees? Are they asylum-seekers? Are they migrants? Are they economic migrants? According to the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a person is a refugee not because it is recognized as such, but because he or she fulfils the criteria to be considered a refugee. One can dispute if women, men, and children arriving from Syria are refugees or asylum-seekers, but what they are definitely not is economic migrants, i.e. individuals leaving their country to improve their economic conditions. Being a refugee or asylum-seeker, up until now, had some consequences.

The cornerstone of refugee law is the principle of non-refoulement, which bans states from expelling or returning refugees or asylum-seekers. The deal does the exact opposite to what this principle – that obliges all member states of the EU –  envisions. Without upholding this principle of no-return, all refugee law is rendered useless. The European Union, that has longed championed international law, now incurs in outright violations of it. The deal also runs counter to the Dublin regulation (that establishes that every single asylum application must be examined) and the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment in article 3. This agreement turns humans into numbers, negates the refugees’ agency, and can lead to an entrenched situation in which a life at the refugee camp goes from temporary to protracted and all hope of a better, safer life is destroyed.

Leaving moral and legal considerations aside, what does the deal specifically do? The European Union will give 6 billion euros to Turkey to help migrants, an amount that will be provided in two installments. It is difficult to even imagine how the money will reach those in need. According to UNHCR data, there are more than two million refugees in Turkey, but the vast majority of refugees in Turkey are not in refugee camps. How will Turkey and Greece, with its crippled economies and infrastructure, manage to help the refugees who, contrary to popular belief, are not all (not even half) concentrated in refugee camps?

The deal also brings about the opening of conversations about Turkey joining the EU; an accession that is unlikely going to happen unless under fraudulent circumstances (à la Greek fiasco). To become a member of the EU, a state has to have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities. The authoritarian tendencies of the Turkish government make the fulfilment of this conditions in the near-future unthinkable, but the opening of the negotiations also conceals the reality of why Turkey’s accession has been stalled for years. The European Union is still based in Judeo-Christian values that many Europeans – as ironically evinced by the popular backlash in the face of the refugee crisis – are not ready to give up. A Turkish accession would reshape the configuration European institutions to an extent that many Europeans are not likely to tolerate.

The deal has been presented as a European victory to regain control of the situation. Well, guess what. It does none of that. The “success” of the plan relies entirely on the good will of Turkey, Greece, desperate individuals, and smugglers. The logic of the deal is inherently flawed. The deal is expected to have a “double-deterrence” effect of sorts. One of the stated goals of the policy is to deter refugees from attempting to escape to EU states. This would imply that these individuals have an option or that are not fleeing from life-threatening conditions. Fleeing to an unwelcoming and harsh Europe was probably their last resource. The masterminds of the accord also expect to influence smugglers (let’s remember that the crisis has also had enormous consequences for human-trafficking). The idea is that because migrants will be returned to Turkey, smugglers will lose business. Given the nature of human-trafficking, what the deal can potentially increase is profits while deteriorating already dire conditions for those smuggled and increasing the likelihood of death. If the dangers posed by the journey, for the refugees, and by the involvement in illegal activities, for the smugglers, have not deterred them so far, it is difficult to imagine why the threat of return to Turkey will, especially, given the lack of infrastructure that both Greece and Turkey are suffering.

Euro-skepticism has been in vogue among right wing parties for years now, but there was still a segment of the European population that had a tiny bit of faith of one day heading in the direction of a greater, human-rights and rule of law based, European Union. The deal with Turkey feels like a stab in the back for those, particularly left-leaning Europeans, who have had such a hard time defending the value of having the union.

Nothing excuses treating humans – and particularly humans fleeing from war – as commodities. In the short-term, the deal is not likely to accomplish its goals. If anything, it will simply deteriorate the refugee laws that were among the most solid and long-standing of public international law (if still ambiguous) and increase the numbers of lives lost. In the medium to long-term, this puts the European Union at an even greater identity crisis and erodes the imagery, the legal system, and the institutions that have taken so much effort to construct.

Among the darkness there is still some light. Last week, a much smaller deal was also signed. Three cities, Barcelona, Lesbos, and Lampedusa agreed to collaborate to tackle the refugee crisis in a more human way. One can only hope that if member states and Turkey continue adrift, local governments will take action and provide a better solution.

Peace negotiations in tatters: key elements to understanding the talks between the Colombian Government and the FARC-EP 


For the outsider, most days can look the same in Bogotá. It will rain at some point in the day, and inevitably a trancón (as the horrible traffic jams are known in local vernacular) will stop the city before and after the workday. Despite the fact that common criminality is rife in the city, commerce is booming, and during the weekends, citizens of Bogotá can be found wandering down the streets, eating in restaurants that have nothing to envy to those that can be found in Manhattan, or shopping in one of the many malls that populate the city. Just by visiting Bogotá, one would hardly ascertain that the country has been immersed in an armed conflict for more than fifty years. But the capital’s detachment from the rest of the country belies a conflict that is very much alive and a peace process that will likely have limited impact.

The Colombian government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) have been engaged in peace negotiations since 2012. In what seems to be the most promising peace process to date, the parties have steadily reached agreements in more than half of the points in the agenda that was set three years ago.  However, many challenges lie ahead.

Both parts in the negotiating table have continued armed attacks against each other. Recent ominous actions by the FARC have raised the alarm on the guerrilla’s commitment to achieving peace, but it must be noted that the decision to conduct negotiations without a ceasefire was a deliberate one, especially on the part of the government. In late 2014, the FARC decided on a unilateral ceasefire, which also unilaterally decided to end. These events, regardless of how despicable, respond to the normal logic of peace negotiations being carried out during an armed conflict. However, former president Uribe and his allies have jumped at the opportunity to discredit the negotiations. His ongoing efforts to delegitimize the peace talks are ceaseless, and given the support that he still musters, the upcoming local elections could complicate the government’s efforts to continue the negotiations. Pressures to reach a peace agreement have intensified, and the debate on the ceasefire is now at the forefront of the discussions. Once again, the FARC has decided on a unilateral ceasefire, and the government has responded with “de-escalation.” At no other state in the ongoing negotiations have the talks been closer to failure, this issue will be key in the continuation or complete cessation of the talks.

In June 4th, 2015, the FARC and the government announced that they had reached an agreement to create a Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition, which will be established once an agreement is reached. This agreement is certainly a welcome development in a country where the conflict has affected about 6.8 million citizens. However, the text of the announcement already raises some concerns on the future of the commission. The statement is not specific on how the truth commission will work, but most disconcerting is the repetition of the assignment of establishing “the origins and multiple causes of the conflict, the principle factors that have facilitated or contributed to the persistence of the conflict, and the effects and most notable impacts of the conflict on the population.” This was already the goal of the Historical Commission on the Conflict and its Victims (also created in la Habana) that failed miserably at producing agreement among the twelve experts and two rapporteurs that were in charge of examining these issues. In June 22, in an event with members of the European left, the FARC insisted again on the need of establishing “the root causes of the war.” While historical revision is of utmost importance, focusing on these elements in the Truth Commission rather than on the victimizing events and reparation will likely stall the implementation of the peace process in detriment of the victims. Hopefully, the Truth Commission will not mimic the inner workings of the Historical Commission and will truly focus on the victims who seek their truth and reparation.

Finally, emerging from one of the longest conflicts in the world will likely present Colombians with innumerable opportunities, but the government has to be very cautious in managing expectations. Even if a peace agreement is reached in the following months, criminality and poverty are likely to remain high in Colombia. Colombians need to be aware that the agreement will not solve the country’s problems. With a gini coefficient well above the alarm boundary set by the world bank, regional disparity and poverty takes its toll on a big segment of the population that live under scarcity and insecurity. The presence of the state remains residual in some regions, with provision of public services ranging from little to non-existent in some areas. The peace agreement is not going to change any of that.