Why people tolerate politicians’ lies.

Posted on under Today's research

Why do political figures appear to be able to get away with mild truth bending and sometimes even outrageous lies? This is, of course, a really important question at the moment. However it doesn’t just apply to politicians. It’s not just a DT thing.

A new study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, suggests people have more leniency for politicians’ lies when they bolster a shared belief that a specific political stance is morally right.

What the researchers say: “It appears to be because those lies are perceived by supporters as an acceptable and perhaps necessary means to achieve a higher moral end,” says the lead author of the study. “A troubling and timely implication of these findings is that political figures may be able to act in corrupt ways without damaging their images, at least in the eyes of their supporters.”

The researchers examined responses to a 2014 survey where participants read a political monologue about federal funding for Planned Parenthood that they believed was previously aired over public radio.

Respondents were randomly assigned one of two feedback conditions where upon completion they were informed that the monologue they had just read was either true or false.

They were then asked to report the extent to which they believed that the speaker was justified in delivering the monologue. Then, they reported their attitude positions for federal funding of women’s reproductive services and their moral conviction for the issue.

Although honesty was positively valued by all respondents, the researchers found that lying that served a shared moralized goal was more accepted and advocacy in support of the opposing view, or nonpreferred end, was more condemned, regardless of whether the statement was true or false.

The researchers say the findings expand knowledge of the moral mandate in two ways.

“Moral conviction for a cause, not the fairness of procedures, may shape people’s perceptions of any target who engages in norm-violating behaviors that uphold moralized causes, such as federally funded family planning in this situation,” they said. “The findings also suggest that, although people are not comfortable excusing others for heinous crimes that serve a moralized end, they appear comparatively tolerant of norm violations like lying.”

So what? There have been a number of studies about lying and the perception of lies. Lying takes more energy than telling the truth, unless the liar has a personality disorder such as psychopathy or narcissism. In both of these cases the liar convinces him or herself that what they are saying is the truth—even if at some level they know it isn’t. The same is true of people in a high executive or political level. They have become so used to people accepting what they say, whether it is an obvious falsehood or not, that the energy expenditure in lying is minimized and they can keep on doing it without obvious psychological harm.

There are also studies that show that for some people getting away with a lie results in the liar getting a dopamine reward. This leads to an addiction to lying—like getting addicted to narcotics or alcohol or gambling. The chronic liar is unable to get a reward from other pleasurable activities, perhaps because his or her dopamine receptor genes don‘t work as they should. The lying addict—like the alcoholic or the problem gambler—has to tell more and greater likes to feed the addiction because, like all addictions, the neurochemical reward lessens over time. In the end there is no reward left, only the habituated drive to drink, to gamble, to smoke or to lie.

What now? There is in practice no real cure for the psychopath or the narcissist. Partly because, unlike the sufferers from many other psychiatric disorders, they do not feel the need of a cure and also their neurogenetic wiring may not allow for one anyway. With other classes of liars the only cure is the withdrawal of the acceptance reward. People they care about have to show that they don’t believe them anymore. This is true of a CEO, a child, a priest or a politician.

Of course, given this study, that may not be possible where there is a moral imperative to accept the lie. I suspect that this is true of DT’s core believers.