Why We Let Politicians Lie. The Difference Between Being Lied TO, and Lied FOR
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
There is much being written about the lies Paul Ryan told in his speech at the Republican Convention. I know, “lies” is a pretty strong word. But a ‘fabrication’, ‘taking liberties with the truth’, ‘bearing false witness against they neighbor’ (Commandment #8)…call it what you will…when you knowingly say something that’s not true, that’s lying.
So why, if to kids Paul Ryan is, as are so many other politicians of all stripes, a “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire”, do we hem and haw and call some of things Ryan said “factual shortcuts” (NPR’s language) or “spin”, the turn of phrase of FactCheck.org. It’s not ‘spin for Ryan to charge that President Obama failed to keep a manufacturing plant open that closed before Obama took office. It’s a lie. It’s not spin to blame President Obama for the loss of a AAA credit rating for the U.S., when Standard & Poor’s specifically blamed the downgrade on the uncompromising stands of Congress (which includes Congressman Ryan), both Republicans and Democrats. It’s a lie. Neither should it be politely called spin when a pro-Obama SuperPac ad suggests that Mitt Romney killed a child because Romney’s private equity company took over a business and reduced worker health care benefits which an employee/mom needed for her sick child. Romney killed the kid? Please! That’s not stretching the truth. That’s first degree False Witness.
The question here is, why do liars who lie in the course of running for office get, at worst, a slap on the wrist, when lying lands you in jail if you do it to a jury, costs you a lot of money if you do it to regulators when you are a business owner, and even costs you your position in office if your lies get your elected and THEN you lie it once you’re there, as with President Richard Nixon, who ultimately was forced to resign not for overtly trying to subvert democracy itself, but for lying about his involvement. We shouldn’t want liars in charge of government, should we? Well, when they are candidates, it depends on whether they are lying TO us, or FOR us.
Psychologists have lots of names for the mental tricks we use to hear what we want to hear, and trust and believe who and what we want to trust and believe; selective perception, motivated reasoning, cognitive dissonance. These are all subconscious mental tools that help us interpret information in order to make judgments and decisions that are good for us. And this subjective denial of reality is really powerful, so powerful that we can believe stupendous lies, like President Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya, or that Mitt Romney killed that child? Why? Because at its heart, this subjective ‘reasoning’ is tied to nothing less than our safety and survival.
In the case of the lying pol, if that pol represents our party or ideology, believing him/her allows us to remain a member in good standing of our tribe. Supporting the tribe by agreeing with the tribal view, as pronounced by the tribal leader (in campaigns we call our tribal leaders ‘nominees’), enhances tribal cohesion, and that helps the tribe win in combat with other tribes (we call some of these battles ‘elections’). Tribe matters to social animals like us. We have evolved to depend on our tribe literally for our health and safety. So we instinctively agree with our tribal leaders, even when they tell in-your-face whoppers, and we do all sorts of cognitive wiggling to see the facts the way they do, rather than objectively. Objectivity is not the goal. Social cohesion, and survival, are.
Why are we forgiving of some lies but not others? Well, it depends on whether we are being liked TO, or lied FOR. The candidate’s lie, told in the name of party/tribal success, subconsciously feels like a lie told in the name of your well-being. Paul Ryan was lying FOR his tribe. The lie told TO you, that harms you or cheats you or treats you unfairly in the selfish best interest of the liar (and his tribe)…that sort of lie is a violation of the basic morality and honesty toward one another that social animals have to have in order to survive in the grand tribe of all of us. Being lied TO, by somebody trying to get ahead at your expense…that’s threatening.
When we are ALL being lied TO, by a company or government official or just a plain old crook, we all agree that’s universally unacceptable and we toss them in jail or out of office. But a candidate isn’t lying TO everyone, just TO the members of the other tribe. So this morning, Democrats are calling Ryan a liar (though they may use less harsh language). Republicans, those being lied FOR, don’t think Ryan lied at all.
The more threatened we feel (about our financial welfare, health, how much control we feel like we have over our life and future), the more powerful this gets…the more we subconsciously rely on our tribe to help protect our health and welfare. These are unsettled, threatening times…which makes them more tribal/polarized times…and so they are times when our nominees/tribal leaders can tell more and more bold-faced lies, and inspire our support rather than offend our intelligence.
Politics is not for the truth, political conventions even less so. They are like the camp fire on the night before battle (or the day before the big game), when the chieftains rally the troops, impassion the tribe, fire up the true believers, or, as politicians might put it, appeal to the base. Politics are about tribal divisions, conflict, victory in the name of power and control and safety, and if truth ends up as road kill along the way, so be it. So we roll our eyes and call dishonesty ‘spin’ or ‘stretching the truth’ or something less harsh than the out-and-out lying it is, because every side uses it, including ours, and winning keeps us safe, and that’s what matters most.