Why people lie

Since Donald Trump became President of the United States, I’ve been stunned and amazed at the sheer number of lies he tells on a daily, even hourly, basis.

He tells lies which can easily be shown to be lies; like his absolute conviction that millions of people voted illegally even though it has been proven that this is not the case. Or that he was wire-tapped by then President Obama — he wasn’t. Or that the FBI had implanted a spy into his campaign; they hadn’t.

But because he is Trump he believes that if he says something often enough, people will believe him. And tragically, it appears he is right.

He now denies he fired James Comey because of the ‘Russia thing’ yet he was interviewed live, on television, by Lester Holt of NBC News for all the world to see. He said, ‘I said to myself you know, this Russian thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse for the Democrats having lost the election.’

And then he denied he said that. Even though it had been televised.

I’m also puzzled by the way he tends to talk about himself in the third person at times, almost as if one part of him distances himself from another part. It does seem strange, but that’s way above my knowledge to analyse; it just seems odd.

I wanted to better understand why people lie — not just Trump, but others that I’ve met over the years.

We all tell the occasional porky. It may be that we’ve been invited to something we don’t want to attend so we say that we have a prior engagement when we actually don’t. Or we may not want to upset a friend when she asks if an outfit suits her and so we say it does when we probably think the opposite.

Leaders may lie to push through an agenda: ‘The merger with xyz companies will not cause any job losses’ and then the pink slips start being handed out. Managers lie to keep hold of their workers saying ‘We can’t afford any pay rises this year but I can promise you that next year we will be in a position to increase wages’ and then the manager gets a raise and a new company car because he has kept wage rises to a minimum. Politicians promise all manner of things when they are on the campaign trail and once in office develop selective memory.

Do we class these actions as lies or broken promises?

Spin doctors are masters of prettying up lies: ‘This is not a demotion, it is a way for you to move to a different department and learn new skills.’ Yeah, right.

I checked out numerous articles on Google and found that there appears to be a lying continuum from the little white lies we all tell, as in ‘I would have loved to come to your party but I’m already booked to go somewhere else’, down to lies which could send a person to jail or cause a war.

It seems that we lie because:

  • we want to be polite and/or we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings
  • we don’t want to have to do something so we offer an excuse
  • we want to impress or inflate our importance. This happens on most CVs where the most common lies are about the power we had and the salary we earned
  • we want to cover up something — like a purchase we couldn’t afford, an affair we had or even a criminal record.

Even in all of these scenarios, I’d have to think there would be limits as to how far we would go with a lie. Surely for most of us, our conscience would be activated at some stage and we would either admit to the lie or at the very least stop perpetuating the lie?

So then I researched information on a deeper and more sinister level of lying. We lie:

  • when we want to gain power over someone or something
  • when we want to manipulate or cheat someone for personal gain
  • when we choose to blame someone for something we did and then sit back while they take the fall
  • when we want to hurt someone or get back at them for something, by spreading falsehoods about them which could affect their jobs, lives or prospects.

The problem when someone in a leadership role lies is that what they say can have a profound effect on their followers. For example, in 2015 a study led by Briony Swire-Thompson at the University of Western Australia presented 2000 adult Americans with one of two statements:

  • Vaccines cause autism.
  • Donald Trump says that vaccines cause autism.

It was discovered that the participants who were Trump supporters showed a stronger belief in the second statement. When these participants were given data from a large-scale study which proved that vaccines do not cause autism, they were asked to re-evaluate their belief in that statement. Initially they accepted that the statement was false, yet when tested again a week later, the Trump supporters had gone back to their original belief, that Donald Trump says that vaccines cause autism so it must be true.

Leaders really do have a duty to check facts and tell the truth because the ultimate problem with lying is that every lie chips away at a person’s reputation or credibility. After lying the first time, they then have to tell more lies and more lies to cover up the first lie.

If someone lies to us, we may believe them the first time, but once we realise that we’ve been lied to, the next time that person makes a statement about anything, we are not going to be quite so trusting. And if we discover that this person has actually lied to us several times, even when they tell us the truth about something we won’t believe them. A classic boy-who-cried-wolf scenario.

There’s a lovely saying: ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’

Finally, and sadly, according to research there are habitual, compulsive and even pathological liars; people who have made lying their way of life and where they just keep adding bigger lies to the original lie even in situations where telling the truth would be just as easy.

In an article by David J. Ley, PhD, he suggests that pathological lying isn’t actually a clinical diagnosis, but lying to such an extent that it actually doesn’t even serve the person, can be a symptom of a personality disorder.

All the more reason, then, to ensure that a person who appears to be a habitual liar does not become the President of the USA.

Ann Andrews CSP

Author, speaker, profiler

Ann is the author of numerous books, but since the inauguration of Donald Trump as POTUS she has concentrated on helping business owners and managers understand that the terrifying behaviours he displays and the damage he is causing are NOT good leadership behaviours.

Author: Lessons in leadership: 50 ways to avoid falling into the ‘Trump’ trap

Author: Leaders Behaving Badly: What happens when ordinary people show up, stand up and speak up


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