Why Politicians Lie, and How They Get Away With It

Why we don't detect politician's lies

Posted Apr 13, 2011

It would be totally hilarious, if it weren't so sad. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart recently featured a huge lie from Arizona Senator, Jon Kyl, when he claimed that over 90% of Planned Parenthood funding goes to pay for abortions (the actual figure is 3%). When confronted, Kyl's office explained that it "was not intended to be a factual statement." In other words, it was a lie, as Stewart (and also Stephen Colbert on his show) explained.

As a psychologist who has studied deception, I'm more interested in the hows and whys of lies told by political leaders, particularly how and why they think they can get away with it (and why they often do). As a leadership scholar, I'm also interested in the ethical issues surrounding strategies used by leaders. Let's deal first with why so many lying leaders can get away with it.

We Trust Too Much. People are notoriously bad at detecting deception. For the most part, people cannot detect everyday lies better than chance (although many think they can). Part of the reason is that we are prone to a "trusting bias" - our default is to believe what others tell us. That's why con artists are so successful. It is so out of the norm (or so we think) for people to lie to us. Certainly, we are even more trusting of our leaders (unless, of course, we have developed a learned mistrust of them , and many people don't trust politicians, but the majority still do). So, leaders (and con artists) learn that they can lie and often get away with it.

Audacious Lies. OK, I don't have any research evidence to back this up, but I suspect that when we hear really big lies - the "can that really be true?" sort - such as over 90% of Planned Parenthood funding goes to abortions, or this plan will lead to "death panels," and it comes from a seemingly authoritative source, we say "gosh, it must be true!" (our trusting nature again).

Cognitive Laziness. When we hear something from a leader, we often don't (and don't want to) engage in the mental effort (or actual physical effort of fact checking) to question the assertion. It's sort of an apathetic, "If the politicians are driving the bus, they must know where they are going."

How about the ethical leadership issues?

The Ends Justify the Means. Politicians, and other leaders, often adhere to a poor code of ethics that says the ends justify the means. This is partly responsible for the mudslinging and dirty politicking. "If I make up a lie about my opponent, it's ok, because if he is elected it will be a disaster." Sorry. The means, and being ethical, are what is really important. The ends rarely, if ever, justify the means.

So, what to do? As the old 1960s saying goes, "Question authority!" Become informed. Check the facts. Don't simply believe what a leader says because he or she is in a position of authority and power. It is a good follower's job to be a reality check on the leader.

It's sad that it takes a fake-news-anchor-comedian, like Jon Stewart to wake us up to our leaders' lies.

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