How to Respond to Today’s Culture of Lying

Why do we lie? Lying allows a person to establish perceived control over a situation by manipulating it. It’s a defence mechanism that (seemingly) prevents them from being vulnerable, that is, to not open up and reveal their true self to another person. People with certain conditions – including narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder – tend to act in manipulative or deceitful ways regardless of the consequences and upset it might cause. By some accounts, politicians’ lying is a rational response to the expectation that other candidates will engage in deceptive behavior.  Davis and Ferrantino theorize that lying is incentivized by the lack of transferable property rights to political office – it’s easier and faster to return a faulty used car than a faulty politician. Everything Nietzsche calls lies are ways of making something seem real which is not – including the negative case of not wanting to see something. Rather than worry about the fact that everyone lies, we should concern ourselves with the reasons why politicians lie.

One might say that dishonesty in politics is a long-standing tradition – politicians with a greater willingness to lie have a better chance of being re-elected. Plato proposed a justification for politicians’ lying in The Republic: “Then if anyone at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good.” As a detractor of democracy, he likely cared little whether the public would be able to detect such deception. While such a “royal lie” would be beneficial to philosopher kings, for actual politicians, the “public good” casts a wide net. Many politicians have clearly benefitted from telling voters what they want to hear or what they want to believe, and history is filled with examples of politicians lying to cover up crime and corruption.1

What happens when a lie hits your brain? The now-standard model was first proposed by Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert more than 20 years ago. Gilbert argues that people see the world in two steps. First, even just briefly, we hold the lie as true: We must accept something in order to understand it. For instance, if someone were to tell us – hypothetically, of course – that there had been serious voter fraud in Georgia during the presidential election, we must for a fraction of a second accept that fraud did, in fact, take place. Only then do we take the second step, either completing the mental certification process (yes, fraud!) or rejecting it (what? no way). Unfortunately, while the first step is a natural part of thinking – it happens automatically and effortlessly – the second step can be easily disrupted. It takes work: We must actively choose to accept or reject each statement we hear.

In certain circumstances, that verification of a lie simply fails to take place. As Gilbert writes, human minds, “when faced with shortages of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, may fail to unaccept the ideas that they involuntarily accept during comprehension.” The narcissist gradually wears down your self-awareness and self-trust, leaving you vulnerable to their manipulations. The most common signs of cognitive dissonance include: Doubting your own memory or recollection of events, conversations, and experiences; second-guessing decisions and choices. Pathological liars can’t stop lying even when it causes psychological distress, puts them in danger, and creates problems with relationships, work, or other aspects of daily life. Those who have followed Trump’s career say his lying isn’t just a tactic, but an ingrained habit. Donald Trump has been a pathological liar all his life, and now he is finally facing accountability via the court system.2

Cognitive-dissonance is just one of many biases that work in our everyday lives. We don’t like to believe that we may be wrong, so we may limit our intake of new information or thinking about things in ways that don’t fit within our pre-existing beliefs. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” People may run into problems with cognitive dissonance because it can be, in its most basic form, a sort of lie to oneself. As with all lies, it depends on the size of the lie and whether it’s more likely to hurt you in some way in the long run. We tell “little white lies” everyday in our social lives (“Oh yes, that’s a great color on you!”) that bring little harm to either side and help smooth over otherwise awkward situations. So, while cognitive dissonance resolves the internal anxiety we face over two opposing beliefs or behaviors, it may also inadvertently reinforce future bad decisions.

Lying can significantly increase the chances of creating false memories as the most persuasive lies often combine elements of both truth and falsehoods. For instance, a criminal offender may provide a false alibi for an event by including elements of a true experience that did not occur during the time in question. As a result, while the event itself may have happened, it did not take place during the time the crime was committed. This combining and later remembering of details about both the true and false versions of events requires considerable cognitive effort on the part of the liar but is necessary to maintain the deception. To decrease this cognitive load, the brain subconsciously starts to think of the fabricated information as the truth, eliminating the need for the liar to keep track of conflicting storylines (Otgaar & Baker, 2018). Thus, the creation of false memories is demonstrated as a subconscious process that decreases the cognitive load typically associated with telling a lie.3

Of course, many of Trump’s lies are conventional lies similar to those that politicians often tell to look good or avoid blame. But the number of these types of lies by Trump vastly exceed the number of lies by previous presidents. Our brains are particularly ill-equipped to deal with lies when they come not singly but in a constant stream, and Trump, we know, lies constantly, about matters as serious as the election results and as trivial as the tiles at Mar-a-Lago. When we are overwhelmed with false, or potentially false, statements, our brains pretty quickly become so overworked that we stop trying to sift through everything. It’s called cognitive load – our limited cognitive resources are overburdened. It doesn’t matter how implausible the statements are; throw out enough of them, and people will inevitably absorb some. Eventually, without quite realizing it, our brains just give up trying to figure out what is true. These efforts are key response to a culture of lying in elections.

Thus, if Trump has a particular untruth he wants to propagate – not just an undifferentiated barrage – he simply states it, over and over. As it turns out, sheer repetition of the same lie can eventually mark it as true in many of our heads. It’s an effect known as illusory truth, first discovered in the ’70s and most recently demonstrated with the rise of fake news. In its original demonstration, a group of psychologists had people rate statements as true or false on three different occasions over a two-week period. Some of the statements appeared only once, while others were repeated. The repeated statements were far more likely to be judged as true the second and third time they appeared – regardless of their actual validity. Keep repeating that there was serious voter fraud, and the idea begins to seep into people’s heads. Thus, Trump’s lies corrode democracy.

People lie to have control over you. People lie to manipulate you. People lie because they are afraid they’re desires will not be met. In 2018 Bernie Saunders called Donald Trump a “pathological liar” who “works night and day on behalf of his fellow billionaires.” Trump is a successful liar because he refuses to remember. When Trump is facing a potentially very bad news cycle his move is to: distract, divert, repeat – to move the problem out of the public eye. Lies can be used to get others to form false beliefs and garner their support. It is well known that false information can influence people’s thinking even after they come to realize the information is false. The cure for the present epidemic of narcissism is for us to stop lying to ourselves about what we think we know.

Trump won the nomination as the candidate who lied the most, won the presidency as someone known to lie; has an unshakable base despite ongoing lies. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms pre-existing beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. This bias is the tendency in all of us to believe stories that reinforce our convictions – and the stronger the convictions, the more powerfully the person feels the pull of the confirmation bias. The problem is exacerbated by voters’ strong incentive to be “rationally ignorant” of politics. Widespread voter ignorance also incentivizes another common type of political deception: lying about the nature of your policies in order to overstate benefits and conceal possible downsides. An ignorant electorate cannot achieve true democratic control over public policy.

Truth, much like knowledge, is bound to power and similarly operates amidst the individuals and institutions that generate and sustain it. The economic elite do not hesitate to present their ideology as interpretation of truth. The “truth” the market reveals is never in actuality some eternal, given fact. The market is never a neutral arbiter of truth, so the “truth” it reveals about government practice has always required interpretation. Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values. It is necessary to create the social environment or milieu to support good governance to control cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception that leads to misperception. The truth is that capitalism creates enormous wealth, but it concentrates into oligopolies and monopolies, to the extent the economic elite creates and normalizes a culture of lying to itself leading to its inherent instability.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) claimed there are no facts only interpretations. In his view there was no objective fact about what has value in itself – culture consisted of beliefs developed to perpetuate a particular power structure. The system, if followed by the majority of the people, supports the interests of the dominant class. Basically, the status of Trump’s lies will determine the outcome of the 2024 election in America. To respond to this culture of lying: The tech platforms must get more aggressive about policing content; put in place robust cybersecurity and infrastructure security arm; maintain a central authority to report false and misleading information; a system to manage “rumour control” during election day to address questions on conspiracy theories circulating in the community; resources to combat false information on line (review the effect of layoffs in tech industry); counter the ongoing weaponized criticism of research on misinformation4 (i.e. Jim Jordan’s efforts).

1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8378529/

2 https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/donald-trump-lies-liar-effect-brain-214658/

3 https://www.psychologyinaction.org/lying-can-reconstruct-memory-how-we-come-to-believe-our-own-lies/

4 https://www.npr.org/2023/11/10/1211929764/election-false-claims-social-media-cisa-trump

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