Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Why Politicians Lie (and Why We Let Them Get Away With It)

What psychological factors cause us to trust lying politicians?

There has been a firestorm of editorials discussing politicians’ lying in speeches and interviews. This has been capped by vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention that has fact-checking reporters and bloggers concerned about the sheer amount of lies and distortions in the speech.

So, the question is why do politicians so often lie, exaggerate, and distort the facts? The short answer is that it works! People are notoriously bad at detecting when others are lying, and there are several psychological reasons for this.

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The Trusting Bias. We tend to trust people too much. Our default psychological mechanism is to believe rather than disbelieve (unless we are in law enforcement, or other professions concerned with professional liars). That is why we are such easy targets for con artists, AND politicians.

Cognitive Laziness. When we hear a claim by a politician, we often don’t (and don’t want to – particularly if the politician is one we support) engage in the mental and physical effort to fact check. Together with the trusting bias, we figure that “he said it, so it must be true.”

Audacious Lying is Effective Lying. In politics (and to some extent in social life), the more outlandish or audacious the lie, the more likely people are to believe it if the source is considered at least minimally credible. Even though politicians are on the bottom rungs of “trustworthy” professionals, when it comes to political facts and figures, we give them the benefit of the doubt, and figure, “that seems so crazy that he must be telling the truth,” and cognitive laziness ensures that we don’t check it out.

Win At All Costs. Politicians justify their lies and distortions by using a sort of “gaming” analogy. In the same way that a basketball or soccer player will “flop” to pretend that there was a foul, the politician believes it’s ok to lie or distort, because the ends (getting your detested opponent to lose) justifies the means.

So, what should we as concerned voters and citizens do? Become more informed. Check the facts. Don’t simply believe people who are in power just because of their position or air of authority.

 Follow me on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/ronriggio

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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