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Post-Truth: The Tragedy of the Trust Commons

Officials and policy makers have to grapple with historically low levels of citizen trust in the U.S. government. Pew Research Center polling suggests that Americans’ trust in the government has fallen by nearly two-thirds in the last two decades, down to 20 percent in 2020.1 It is not only elected and appointed officials who suffer from the trust gap. Analysts, commentators, and other media figures suffer from decreasing levels of trust, with a drop from 55 percent in 1996 to 40 percent in 2020.2 Given the extensive scholarship on the key role of trust in the public sphere, especially in the political arena, these numbers should alarm officials, policy experts and analysts, and academics concerned with public policy.3

While politicians have made use of disinformation to push their political agendas in the past, this problem has intensified in recent years. The 2016 presidential campaign in the United States and the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom have led the venerable Oxford Dictionary to choose as its 2016 word of the year “post-truth,” defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”4 The 2020 campaign proved to be even worse, including the post-election denial and attacks on a clear election result, culminating in the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

On the one hand, post-truth political methods have to do with the quantity of lies. On the other, post-truth politics involves a new model of behavior when caught lying. Unlike previous politicians who backed away when caught lying, post-truth politicians do not back away from their falsehoods. Instead, they attack those who point out their deceptions, undermining public trust in credible experts and reliable news sources.

This is not only a problem with public figures: fake news, more recently termed “viral deception” by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is sweeping social media, shared by ordinary citizens.5 Sharing such misinformation — at least by private citizens — is not necessarily intended to harm others or even deliberately deceive. Our emotions and intuitions focus more on protecting our worldview and personal identity, and less on finding out the most accurate information.6

Fortunately, behavioral science research findings provide some insights on an intervention that may address this lack of trust — the Pro-Truth Pledge (PTP). Our aspiration is for the PTP to help rebuild trust in and decrease deception in the political sphere, and we encourage all officials, policy experts, and academics to take the PTP. I wrote about this in a recent issue of Skeptic.7

Truth and the Tragedy of the Commons

The trust gap in the U.S. is difficult to bridge because, although our society as a whole loses when deception is rampant in the public sphere, individuals who practice deceptive behaviors often gain. This type of situation is known as a “tragedy of the commons,” following a famous article in Science by Garret Hardin.8 Hardin demonstrated that in areas where a group of people share a common resource without any rules about the use of this resource, each individual may well have a strong interest in taking more of the common resource than is their fair share, leading to individual gain at cost to the community. A wellknown tragedy of the commons is environmental pollution.9 We all gain from clean air and water, yet individual polluters, from a game-theoretical perspective, may well gain more — at least in the short and medium term — from polluting our environment.10 Pollution of truth is similarly eroding of the atmosphere of trust in our political environment.

Solving tragedies of the commons requires, according to Hardin, “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected,” so as to prevent these harmful outcomes where a few gain at the cost of everyone else.11 The environmental movement presents many examples of successful efforts to addressing the tragedy of the commons in environmental pollution.12 Only substantial disincentives for polluting outweigh the benefits of polluting from a game theoretical perspective.13 Particularly illuminating is an analysis by Mark van Vugt describing the application of behavioral sciences insights to the tragedy of the commons in the environment. His research showed that in addition to mutual coercion by an external party such as the government, the commons can be maintained through a combination of providing credible information, appealing to people’s identities, setting up new or changing existing institutions, and shifting the incentives for participants.14

The research on successful strategies used by the environmental movement fits well with work on choice architecture and libertarian paternalism, the latter of which refers to an approach to private and public institutions that aims to use findings from behavioral science about problematic human thinking patterns — most notably cognitive biases — to shape human behavior for social good while also respecting individual freedom of choice.15 Choice architecture is the method of choice used by libertarian paternalists, through shaping human choices for the welfare of society as a whole, by setting up default options, anticipating errors, giving clear feedback, creating appropriate incentives, and so on.16 The PTP, created by a team of behavioral scientists, is informed by strategies that have proven successful in the environmental movement and combines them with choice architecture.

The Pro-Truth Pledge: Private Citizens

By now, over 10,000 private citizens have taken the pledge. We have performed some follow-up conversations with pledge-takers to determine whether the pledge impacted their behaviors. A U.S. Army veteran and member of the Special Operations community, John Kirbow, took the pledge.17 He then wrote a blog post about how it impacted him. He notes that “I’ve verbally or digitally passed on bad information numerous times, I am fairly sure, as a result of honest mistakes or lack of vigorous fact checking.” He describes how after taking the pledge, he felt “an open commitment to a certain attitude” to “think hard when I want to play an article or statistic which I’m not completely sold on.” Having taken the Pro-Truth Pledge, he found it “really does seem to change one’s habits,” helping push him both to correct his own mistakes with an “attitude of humility and skepticism, and of honesty and moral sincerity,” and also to encourage “friends and peers to do so as well.”

In another case, Mark Kauffman, a photographer from New York, shared an article from, a site shown by credible fact-checkers used by the PTP to be systematically unreliable. Other pledge-takers, following the behavior of asking people to stop using unreliable sources regardless of the credibility of the article, asked him to withdraw it, and he did so.

A former U.S. intelligence officer, who retired from service after four decades, took the PTP (he prefers to remain anonymous due to his career). He later described how soon after taking the pledge, a piece of news “that played right to my particular political biases hit cable TV and then the internet and of course my first inclination was to share it as quickly and widely as possible. But then I remembered the pledge I’d signed and put the brakes on. I decided to wait a bit to see how it played out (and boy-howdy am I glad I did.)… As it turned out the story was a complete dud, ‘fake news’ as they say. That experience has led me to be much more vigilant in assessing, and sharing, stories that appeal to my political sensibilities. I now make a much bigger effort to fact-check before I post or share.”

The Pro-Truth Pledge: Public Figures

Why should public figures take the PTP? We anticipate that some public figures would be motivated by the same intrinsic motivations that would lead private citizens to take the pledge. However, we wanted to provide particular incentives for public figures to take the pledge, and also disincentives for breaking the pledge, and we decided to do so in the form of reputation. Reputational rewards and penalties have been shown to be vital in addressing tragedies of the commons in the environmental movement, and the PTP borrows from this approach.18

How are public figures rewarded for taking the pledge? Taking the pledge is a way of providing credible information about the honesty of a public figure to an audience interested in such information, thus providing a substantial reputational reward. When signing the pledge, each public figure has an opportunity to provide a brief statement about why they took the pledge, and some links to their online presence. This information will be stored in a database that anyone can access, such as constituents interested in evaluating political candidates for office or deciding whether to trust the commentary of a media figure, policy expert, or academic commenting on public affairs. Moreover, the statement would get sent in a regular newsletter to all pledge signers who chose to subscribe to email updates. Doing so improves that public figure’s reputation and gains them new supporters. The public figure can provide additional content for the PTP newsletter about how the pledge changed their behavior, further reinforcing both their reputation and providing proof for the PTP newsletter subscribers of the effectiveness of the pledge, creating a virtuous cycle characteristic of successful innovations.19

Such provision of information has been crucial in successful interventions within the environmental movement to address tragedies of the commons. As an example, research shows that labels on household appliances that list comparisons of energy use and emissions most effectively change behavior when consumers are already concerned with the environment but lack technical knowledge about the appliances.20 Similarly, many consumers of political information lack knowledge about which officials and media figures and analysts are credible, and the PTP pledge provides that information.

Many may worry about the problem of false signaling or cheating — a public figure may take the pledge to signal a commitment to the truth, without actually abiding by the pledge.21 Private citizens have little incentive to take their time and share their personal data by filling out the pledge, making it likely that only those committed to advancing the cause of truth in our society would take this action. However, the reputational value for public figures of taking the pledge, especially as the PTP gains popularity and credibility and also has a bigger email list, will grow higher and higher. If we do not prevent false signaling and cheating on the pledge, the pledge will not be able to provide credible information and thus fail to shift incentives to favor sharing accurate information instead of deception.

To address cheating, the pledge involves a monitoring mechanism that makes sure the pledge has teeth in the form of reputational penalties which are commensurate with the infraction. Some PTP advocates are assigned to monitor public figures. For example, a candidate running for the state house in Arizona, Johny Martin, took the pledge. He made a misstatement during a public rally, and later posted on Facebook about the misstatement, retracting it and citing the pledge.22

Michael Smith, a candidate for Congress from Idaho, took the PTP. He later posted on his Facebook wall a screenshot of a tweet by Donald Trump criticizing minority and disabled children. After being called out on it, he went and searched Trump’s feed. He could not find the original tweet, and while Trump may have deleted that tweet, the candidate edited his own Facebook post to say that “Due to a Truth Pledge I have taken I have to say I have not been able to verify this post.”23 He indicated that he would be more careful with future postings.

So why should elected or appointed officials take the pledge if it restrains their activities and causes them to make such statements retracting their posts? Officials need to be perceived as trustworthy by citizens. The PTP provides that credibility, due to the presence of the monitoring mechanism. Citizens can easily look them up in the PTP database. If the official has signed the pledge a while ago and is not in contempt, the citizen can assume the official has not made any deceptive statements without retracting them later. The official gets additional benefits because when the official signs up, her information is included in the PTP updates. This provides the official with a positive reputation as being honest and credible and thereby gets them more support.

What about policy experts, commentators, analysts, media figures, and scholars? They all need to be perceived as trustworthy by the audiences to which they communicate. The PTP provides them with that benefit due to the monitoring mechanism, and similarly to the officials described above, the longer they are signed up without being in contempt, the more credibility they get. Those who sign can also get a broader audience engaged with them since their information will be included in the PTP updates. Moreover, if their competitors do not sign the pledge, those who signed up will get a bigger audience, since audiences will start flocking to those deemed more trustworthy sources of news/analysis/thought leadership. Thus, the first mover advantage applies to these groups as well. Media figures are also taking the pledge. In fact, over 1,200 public figures took the pledge, including such public intellectuals as Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer, and Peter Singer.

Fact-Checking Organizations

The current best alternatives to advancing truth in our political system focus on supporting the work of fact-checking organizations. Noble and worthwhile, these much needed efforts unfortunately do not address the underlying problem of distrust in fact-checking organizations. For instance, according to a September 2016 Rasmussen Reports survey, only 29 percent of all likely voters in the U.S. trust fact-checking of candidates’ statements. The political disparity is enormous, and in-line with previous reporting on the partisan divide — 88 percent of Trump supporters do not trust fact-checkers, while 59 percent of Clinton supporters express trust for fact-checkers.24

This distrust for fact-checkers will not be solved by providing more fact-checking, and can only be addressed by getting citizens to both care more about the truth and by providing credible information about who is truthful. The PTP aims to solve these problems through appealing to people’s identities and getting them more emotionally invested into truth-oriented behavior, while also providing them with information about who are honest public figures. Since the PTP uses credible fact-checking organizations to help determine what is true — holding as credible those organizations that have joined the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies — a secondary effect will be to help legitimate trustworthy fact-checking organizations.


The PTP uses all four components shown by behavioral science research on environmental pollution as crucial to addressing tragedies of the commons.25 It provides information about the credibility of those who sign it, as well as information about what it means to orient toward the truth and what constitutes credible information sources. It appeals to the identity of people to desire to be honest and be perceived that way. Finally, it offers positive reputational rewards for honesty and reputational penalties for dishonesty, taking advantage of the behavioral science research on incentives. We propose that the PTP should be taken by all of these public figures committed to truth-oriented behavior, and be used by all audiences and constituents for these public figures to determine the credibility of these individuals. END

About the Author

Gleb Tsipursky is a behavioral scientist passionate about promoting truth, rational thinking, and wise decision making. A civic activist and philanthropist, he’s the volunteer President of the Board of the nonprofit Intentional Insights and co-founded the Pro-Truth Pledge. He’s a best-selling author of a number of books, including the national bestseller The Truth Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, and other languages. He published over 550 articles and gave over 450 interviews for prominent venues such as Time, USA Today, and Scientific American. His newest book is Pro Truth: A Pragmatic Plan to Put Truth Back Into Politics.

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This article was published on March 27, 2023.

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