The sad reality of public life

I have often wondered why there is such a strong reaction to news of politicians’ mistakes. Just recently, Damien O’Connor made the error of allowing a suspended employee to play in the Parliamentary rugby team. The only concern here is the possible appearance of improper influence, as the employee is personally known to Mr O’Connor. I could understand the Prime Minister rebuking him for under-estimating the media reaction to his conduct; however, the PM has not gone to any lengths to disabuse the press of the notion that his position as minister is under threat. It seems common for ministers to be demoted when the cloud of potential impropriety hangs over their heads, and for their alleged misconduct to blight their careers for some time.

I have long been baffled by this seeming over-reaction to the ‘misconduct’ of political figures. Then I read this article on peoples’ recollection of accusations and exonerations. Shankar Vedantam writes:

The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

So it may in fact be rational to dismiss people from their positions as public figures if damaging allegations are made against them, regardless of the truth of those accusations. The damage done to their reputation could be irreparable since any later finding of innocence will probably be forgotten by a large number of people. Sadly, the spectre of a scandal could be enough to get you relegated from your ministerial chair to a back-room policy position. The cognitive biases of the electorate make it the rational choice for the PM to fire you.

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