Why People Lie

Why People Lie

Not all falsehoods are lies, and there are legitimate reasons to carefully peruse a thesaurus to find the right alternative word. Indeed, most journalists require that the word "lie" be used when the speaker not only asserts something is not true but does so with the knowledge that the statement is false and intent to convince the listener otherwise. We can assign a probability that an assertion is a lie in any particular context but we cannot know with absolute certainty without supporting evidence.

Normal Lies

False Testimony. Psychologists know witnesses, who believe themselves to be truthful, can give inaccurate testimonies.  In a study performed more than 70 years ago, psychologists Allport & Postman (1947) asked subjects to recall the scene in the image posted here. The predominant recollection was of a black man holding a razor. Many subsequent studies confirm that memories are not like a photo or a video recorded in our brains, instead we process and store memories according to our individual experiences, beliefs, and expectations.

Exaggerations. Marketing claims such as "America's finest" or "world's best" are not taken literally. Such statements are unprovable and are interpreted in context: someone wants us to buy or like something. Exaggeration is a necessary component of many jokes or other humorous entertainment (try to imagine an episode of Seinfeld without exaggeration). These exaggerations are fundamentally distinct from deliberate deceit such as making false claims on a resume or a job application.

Innocent Falsehoods. Social media research reveals that false news spreads much faster online than does factual news. Much (if not most) false news due to innocent sharing of surprising or shocking information. The person sharing the information often believes what is shared; it may have originated with a trusted friend of has enough factual information to be credible. Such sharing is not lying regardless of its original intent; it is innocent dissemination of something of interest and we enjoy sharing "facts" of mutual interest. However, we step over the line between truths and lies when we know (or strongly believe) the shared information is false but feeds our confirmation biases. Thus journalists and opinion writers who contribute to extremely liberal or extremely conservative media frequently lie.

White lies. White lies often are small and harmless; "everyone loved your delicious fruitcake". They can be designed to show empathy for, or be kind to, a person in need of comfort. They can also be self-serving. For example, I might be worried about being late for a movie and without really looking, respond "no, your hair looks great, let's go".  Small self-serving lies can become habitual and escalate over time. Recent research demonstrates that that telling small self-serving lies can have a depressing effect on the amygdala in our brains and can escalate dishonesty over time. In some contexts, white lies must be carefully crafted to be compassionate. The physician must balance giving accurate and necessary medical information to a patient against creating unnecessary counterproductive fear or anxiety.

A quick Google search will expose many additional types of falsehoods and my intention here is not to enumerate them but to distinguish between benign falsehoods and lies that can harm others or even lead to deaths.

Why Liars Lie

We all lie:
Do you ever give people compliments that aren’t completely genuine?
Have you told someone you were doing well when, in reality, you were exhausted and having a terrible week?
Do you ever tell people you are busy to avoid having to talk to them for an extended period of time or do something with them?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you’ve lied. Those are just a couple of the common scenarios that trigger the most lying.
(TED Talk)

But a small percentage of people persistently lie. Psychologists distinguish normal lying from mythomania (often informally called "pathological lying"). However, psychologists are not united about formal diagnoses of excessive lying disorders; There are no diagnostic criteria for "pathological lying" but there are a number of commonly cited characteristics that differentiate mythomaniacs from normal liars:

  1. - lie when there is no apparent benefit, and even when it is to their disadvantage;
  2. - lie with no obvious external motive;
  3. - lie to deflect evidence contradicting previous lies;
  4. - lie for adulation and aggrandizement;
  5. - have no empathy for others including people who are hurt by the lies;
  6. - lie even when confronted with contrary evidence.
Famous Liars

Charles Ponzi
Perhaps the most recognizable liar in history is Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who promised a 50% return in 45 days and a 100% return in 90 days. Ponzi sold unwitting buyers International Reply Coupons (IRCs) purchased from foreign countries, claiming up to 400% profits from redeeming them in the U.S. This, he said, was possible because widely disparate inflation rates following WWI arbitrage which allowed him to redeem the cheap foreign IRCs for the more expensive U.S. postage. The difference in price is profit from. But Ponzi established credibility by using money from early investors to pay the promised returns to prior investors; what is now known as a classic Ponzi scheme.

Indeed, such arbitrage was possible and legal. The problem arose when it became apparent that there were only 27,000 IRCs in circulation while Ponzi had promised, but failed to deliver to investors, 160,000,000 IRCs. Even if there were a market for that many coupons, overhead and the cost of filling more than one of the largest ships in the world with physical coupons would have wiped away all the profits. Of course, Ponzi was eventually imprisoned and died in poverty.

Ponzi doesn't meet the mythomania criteria listed above with the exception of lying to deflect evidence contradicting previous lies. A few famous liars who do meet most or all of the criteria are: Richard Nixon, Frank Abagnale Jr., Jim Bakker, and perhaps the most "successful liar" in History, Ferdinand  ("Fred") Waldo Demara Jr.

Madoff Today
Madoff 2009
The best known Ponzi scheme in modern times was conducted by Bernie Madoff who conned investors out of $65 billion. Madoff once addressed  a conference on illegal practices in the financial industry stating “In today’s regulatory environment, it’s virtually impossible to violate rules.” This lie and persistent lies about fabulous returns kept investors happy until it became known that the whole scam was an elaborate fraud. Madoff is sentenced to 150 years in prison but is expected to be released in 2039 if he lives to be 101 years old.

Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr
At a young age, Fred Demara liked practical jokes. On one occasion, he found two artificial legs in the trash and places them protruding from a snowbank. Fred hid laughing at the reaction of passing motorists. He began a lifelong career of lying and deceiving by convincing a candy store owner to give him enough chocolate candy on credit to share with his entire class. When the priest of the school confronted him, Demara lied explaining that his father had just gotten a new job. The rest of Fred Demara's life would be consumed by elaborate lies, forged documents, and an astounding array of careers for which he was not qualified. He succeeded in most of his ill-gotten jobs was due to his high IQ, an exceptional memory, an ability to quickly learn foreign languages (he spoke seven languages and read others), and his ability to speed-read. He could master technical books in an incomprehensibly short time (some reports claim this was due to a "photographic" memory.)

The most famous among Demara's deceptions occurred after he befriended a credentialed Canadian physician, Dr, Joseph Cyr, who wanted to obtain an American medical license so he could practice in both countries. Demara offered to take Cyr's credentials to the U.S. and start the process. Needless to say, the credentials never made it to the American authorities. Demara adopted Dr, Cyr's identity and was able to enlist as a surgeon in the Canadian Royal Navy despite the fact that he was neither a Canadian citizen nor had he ever attended medical school. When Demara was presented with 16 badly injured Korean soldiers, he would quickly retire to his private room, speed-read the technical aspects of each necessary surgery while the patient was being prepped, and perform the surgery with uncanny focus. He saved many lives that day and all surgeries, including removing a bullet from within an inch of the heart. Unfortunately for Demara, his fame as a miracle surgeon spread quickly and he was discovered to be a fake, albeit a celebrated successful one.

Demara successfully adopted many other personas. he impersonated "... a civil engineer designing a bridge, a sheriff's deputy, an assistant prison warden, a doctor of applied psychology, a hospital orderly, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Benedictine monk, a Trappist monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a teacher - and at the end of his life a hospital chaplain in his own name." His biggest fear was being discovered to be a fraud, not because he might be punished, but because he would be humiliated by being notoriously labeled a liar and a con man.

Deadly Lies 

A number of wars have been started or escalated with a lie. President James K. Polk enticed the Mexican army to attack US forces led by Zachary Taylor just inside disputed territory (not technically yet part of the United States). By doing so, he was able to persuade a wary Congress that Mexico had invaded the United States. Congress then declared war on Mexico. [The disputed territory is depicted on the left. Ultimately the U.S. acquired the area depicted on the right)

The Spanish-American war was started when President William McKinley inaccurately announced the Spanish military blew up the USS Maine (it was eventually determined that an internal explosion most likely sunk the Maine). The Vietnam war escalated following a false claim by Lyndon Johnson that a US gunboat was destroyed by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. And many of us remember the false statement about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the conspiracy theories of a direct connection to the 9/11 incident.

An even greater number of deaths were caused by lies promulgated by the tobacco industry. In 1994, the CEO of RJ Reynolds, James Johnson, testified before Congress stating “Cigarette smoking is no more ‘addictive’ than coffee, tea, or Twinkies.” We now know that smoking causes over 6 million deaths worldwide and killed nearly half a million Americans every year according to the CDC.  In 1932-1933 Stalin orchestrated a man-made famine to control Ukraine's independence movement that starved several million people. The U.S. and others likely would have intervened to mitigate the starvation had the NY Times and other media not persistently repeated the soviet propaganda.

Is Trump A Mythomaniac?

Regardless of your political persuasion, an objective matching of Trump's behavior to the enumerated list describing mythomania yields an affirmative answer. However, not all of Trump's falsehoods are deliberate, and not all of his supporters believe his falsehoods to be literally true (by way of an analogy, admittedly imperfect, many people believe in the bible but do not accept all events described therein to be factual). There are three reasons why Trump's lies are effective: 1) confirmation bias (which reinforces counterfactual partisan positions on both sides of the "aisle"), 2) what I term "ethical justification," and 3) he has refined the lying through years of practice in his businesses.

A recent study presented subjects with statements known to be false. Half the subjects were told to imagine if the statement could have been true had conditions been different (e.g., "could the audience at Trump's inauguration have been as large as Trump claimed if the weather were more pleasant?"). The subjects were then asked to rate how close the statement was to the truth. The subjects that imagined if the statement could have been true rated it significantly more ethical than did the control group.

The ethical justification bias is frequently used to publicly justify Trump's lies. When President Trump retweeted a video falsely purporting to show a Muslim migrant committing assault, Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended him by saying, “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.” On another occasion, Ms. Sanders admitted that Mr. Trump had made up a story about how Japan drops bowling balls on American cars to test their safety, but she argued that the story still “illustrates the creative ways some countries are able to keep American goods out of their markets.” (Source)

While the above examples influenced Trump supporters to give him a pass on lying, Trump's detractors are also influenced by imagining what might have happened.  "...for instance, the research subjects read a false report that Mr. Trump had removed a bust of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office was circulated widely on the internet. Half the participants were first invited to imagine how the falsehood could have been true if circumstances had been different; they were asked whether Mr. Trump would have removed the bust if he could have gotten away with it. Again, the control group rated the falsehood to be significantly less ethical than the group that imagined what Trump might have done under other circumstances.

There is no doubt that in our current times, lies greatly shape out attitudes. Fake news, the global reach of the Internet and social media, and the strength of the hold partisan politics has on each of us magnifies our biases. I write this blog post in hopes that the destructive effects of lies might be mitigated by increasing our awareness of the value of truth and its potential to restore the prospects of a kinder more compassionate society.

Being Honest