We regularly come across politicians who lie or twist the truth. They lie on TV panels, they lie during rallies, they lie in interviews. And each time, they do it with confidence and conviction, however outlandish the claim.
Remember when Trump said Obama was the founder of ISIS or when Kejriwal said he feared Modi would kill him? Or when Mamata Banerjee darkly portended that a military coup was taking place when the Eastern Command of the Indian army was conducting a routine exercise? Some of us may remember how former US president Ronald Reagan lied that his government had not sold weapons to Iran to secure the release of hostages despite an embargo. The examples abound.
Lies are sometimes pursued for the higher objectives of the nation or a state or a set of followers.
The question is this: why are politicians to economical with the truth and so generous with lies?
Lying for personal advantage
Politicians use lying as a means to achieve their personal objectives. These could be to gain political mileage, to achieve some personal gain, win people over during elections or hide misdeeds. The objective is the selfish pursuit of a personal agenda.
There are many instances of leaders lying to enhance their standing before voters. For example, before the last Bihar elections, Lalu Prasad’s daughter Misa Bharti claimed she had been invited by Harvard to deliver a lecture, which was later denied by the university. Or let’s talk about AAP politician Jitender Singh Tomar—the former cabinet minister in the Delhi government lied about his law degree and later had to quit. Richard Nixon had to resign to avoid impeachment following his lies about trying to cover up the Watergate operation.
Such lies are typically for selfish reasons. And if the leader gets caught, he or she can end up with a ruined reputation and a finished career. Sometimes, though, an apology can help with damage control, as was the case with Bill Clinton, who lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky but later admitted to it and apologised.
Lying as a strategic tool
This is the case when a politician holds a position of power and uses lying as a tool for meeting strategic objectives. This tool comes in various iterations: deception, doublespeak, hypocrisy, concealment, selective honesty etc. They lie because it’s needed to achieve the objectives of the role. They won’t hesitate to distort or spin a fact because it’s what would serve the needs of their followers and larger constituents. Lies are pursued for the higher objectives of the nation or a state or a set of followers. They do it because that’s what is in the best interest. For example, with an objective to protect the image and security of the US, Dwight D Eisenhower, who was the President of US from 1953 till 1961, denied that the erstwhile USSR had shot down one of its spy planes. These lies are typically for unselfish reasons. Leaders are quite unapologetic as they are driven by a larger cause.
Lying for emotional appeal
We see an emergence of a culture wherein politicians appeal to the deep emotions of their constituents, but what they say is often disconnected from reality, policy and real life data.
This is, in fact, termed as a “post-truth” era. Oxford dictionary defines “post-truth” as relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
People lapped up Trump’s lies because they were aligned with their own fallacious beliefs. Many politicians are skilled at exploiting the ignorance of citizens.
What happens here is that politicians keep on repeating the same message and try to create a new reality. They intentionally distort facts in order to activate the deep-seated insecurities of the constituents. This was amply evident in the recently concluded US elections wherein Donald Trump was able to appeal to the insecurities of the voters around immigration, job-loss, falling wages, income stagnation, etc. Many of his proclamations have been established as lies. Yet, voters believed him and he went on to win the elections. Today with social media politicians are directly able to talk to citizens. And with so much information overload it becomes very difficult to establish the veracity of what is being said. Journalists and newspapers may conduct fact-checks, but this doesn’t always reach the citizens.
Seasoned politicians are well aware of the power of confirmation bias: people look for information that confirms what they already believe. Then there is the Semmelweis reflex, which is rejecting information that contradicts our established views of the world. For example Trump said during the campaign that employment rates are low and the economy is in the doldrums. However, the latest data shows that unemployment is the lowest it has been in nine years and that the economy is in robust shape. Yet people lapped up Trump’s lies because they were aligned with their own fallacious beliefs. Many politicians are skilled at exploiting the ignorance of citizens.
Lying out of habit
We are taught to tell “white lies” from childhood. We are taught to go into raptures over gifts we don’t actually like or to offer compliments we don’t really mean. These are “lies” taught for social lubrication. We are told they are “white lies” and don’t cause any harm—in fact, we are taught, they do good. The problem is that when this is ingrained at an early age, the child learns to lie. If one can get away with a “white lie”, then why not try a “real lie” to see if it just as easily believed? The problem grows from there and becomes a pattern, a habit. In a recent study, the researchers found that the sensitivity of the amygdala (in our brain) to dishonesty reduces over a period of time with repetition. It could be another reason why politicians could be prone to lying—they just grow more comfortable with it (and perhaps better at it) over time.