The Power of Prime

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Six Reasons Why Politicians Believe They Can Lie

Do politicians really think they won't be caught when they lie?

With the presidential and congressional campaigns in the homestretch, the quadrennial contest for deception, misdirection, fact-bending, half-truths, and downright lies, in other words, the challenge to win the hearts and minds of voters, is in full swing. In writing this post, I’m trying to maintain a neutral stance on which party and which candidates are the most disingenuous and dishonest, but I will say that lying seems to be reaching its apogee with less than two months until the election, though I’m sure there will be new heights (or depths, depending on how you look at it) to be reached between now and November.

I’m constantly amazed by how often politicians lie and then, of course, their unwillingness to admit that they lied. The euphemisms that politicians use for what is, in many cases, bold-faced lies are legend. Politicians misspoke. The biased media misinterpreted what they meant. Politicians’ words were distorted, misrepresented, twisted, exaggerated, or taken out of context. They overstated, understated, or misstated. But, of course, politicians never lie, at least that’s what they say.

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Yet, the unvarnished truth is that politicians do lie about things substantive, for example, Anthony Wiener’s denials of his physically self-adoring tweets, and trivial, such as Paul Ryan’s physically self-adoring claims of having run a sub-three-hour marathon.

The $64,000 question that is constantly asked is: Why do politicians believe they can lie and not get caught? Particularly in this age of the Internet and its army of professional and amateur fact checkers, the chances of lies standing up under the glare of the inevitable cyber-scrutiny are slim to none. Of course, some politicians don’t even try to adhere to “honesty is always the best policy” (thanks George Washington), as the Romney pollster Neil Newhouse now famously stated, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

So, why do politicians believe they can lie when their untruths are so easily uncovered? Here are six reasons.

  1. Many politicians are narcissists. Though research on politicians is limited, it isn’t difficult to see the connection. Narcissists are arrogant, self-important, see themselves as special, require excessive admiration, have a sense of entitlement, and are exploitative. If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This constellation of narcissistic attributes causes them to believe that they are right and, even if they are not, they’re too smart to be caught or suffer the consequences. In other words, they believe their own BS. Case in point: As John Edwards, the former senator and vice presidential nominee, noted, “[My experiences] fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want.”
  2. Politicians know their followers will believe them, even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Politicians and their adherents live in an echo chamber in which everyone watches the same news channel, listens to the same talk radio, reads the same newspapers and web sites, and hangs out with the same like-minded people. There exists an impermeable membrane that prevents conflicting information from entering. The content of the lies is also usually red meat for the politicians’ ravenous base who are only too happy to chew on it for days on end.
  3. People don’t want to hear the truth. Truth, as the saying goes, hurts and no one wants to hear things that threaten their existence, their beliefs, or that will make them uncomfortable. It is decidedly better for politicians to tell people what makes them feel comfortable. Why should politicians be the purveyors of bad news (and decrease the likelihood of getting people’s votes) when they can tell fairy tales with happy endings (which, of course, everyone wants) and come out the victor.
  4. The Internet never forgets. One of the unintended consequences of the Internet is that information, true or not, lives on forever and it is likely to continue to be believed even in the face of contradictory evidence. Research has shown, for example, that people are more likely to believe unsubstantiated rumors about a political candidate they oppose when read in emails and on blogs.
  5. Cognitive biases. Daniel Kahneman and others have demonstrated that the human mind engages in many cognitive tricks to help people be more efficient, reduce confusion and anxiety, and keep life simple and coherent. Examples include the confirmation bias which involves the inclination to seek out information that supports our own preconceived notions; the Semmelweis reflex which is the predisposition to deny new information that challenges our established views; and the overconfidence effect which involves unwarranted confidence in one’s own knowledge, just to name a few.
  6. If a lie is told enough times, people will assume it is true. It is not a stretch to understand why people would believe something if they hear it enough. People expect that lies will be disproved and fade away. So if the lies continue to be heard, people assume, then they must be true. Case in point: John Kerry being “Swift Boated” during the 2004 presidential campaign.

Ultimately, politicians lie because, due to the six reasons above, the cost/benefit ratio for lying is in their favor. Politicians run this calculation when they create or shift a damaging narrative, attack an opponent, or respond to indefensible claims against them. I’m going to assume that most politicians know when they are lying (if not, we not only have a bunch of narcissists in government, but also a whole lot of sociopaths). So, politicians lie when they believe that dishonesty is the best policy for getting elected.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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