Six reasons why politicians lie and get away with it


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I have always wondered why people believe politicians even when they are telling some of the most outrageous lies.

A 2017 study by Allison Mueller and Linda Skitka of the University of Illinois showed that people were more aptly ready to accept a political figure’s lies as long as they propagated a shared moral view and showcased that their political leanings were morally correct.

Therefore lying to serve a moral purpose or propagate a strongly held conviction was much more tolerable than information that opposed with personally held political stances and beliefs.

Mueller said that, “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”.

A 2012 article by Jim Taylor in Psychology Today was, however, more succinct. It listed six reasons why politicians believe they can lie and get away with it.

1-Many politicians are narcissists. Narcissists are arrogant, self-important, see themselves as special, require excessive admiration, have a sense of entitlement, and are exploitative. This constellation of narcissistic attributes causes them to believe that they are right and, even if they are not, they’re too smart to be caught or suffer the consequences.

2-Politicians know their followers will believe them, even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Politicians and their adherents live in an echo chamber in which everyone watches the same news channel, listens to the same talk radio, reads the same newspapers and web sites, and hangs out with the same like-minded people. There exists an impermeable membrane that prevents conflicting information from entering. The content of the lies is also usually red meat for the politicians’ ravenous base who are only too happy to chew on it for days on end.

3-People don’t want to hear the truth. Truth, as the saying goes, hurts and no one wants to hear things that threaten their existence, their beliefs, or that will make them uncomfortable. It is decidedly better for politicians to tell people what makes them feel comfortable. Why should politicians be the purveyors of bad news (and decrease the likelihood of getting people’s votes) when they can tell fairy tales with happy endings (which, of course, everyone wants) and come out the victor.

4-The Internet never forgets. One of the unintended consequences of the Internet is that information, true or not, lives on forever and it is likely to continue to be believed even in the face of contradictory evidence. Research has shown, for example, that people are more likely to believe unsubstantiated rumors about a political candidate they oppose when read in emails and on blogs.

5-Cognitive biases. Daniel Kahneman and others have demonstrated that the human mind engages in many cognitive tricks to help people be more efficient, reduce confusion and anxiety, and keep life simple and coherent. Examples include the confirmation bias which involves the inclination to seek out information that supports our own preconceived notions; the Semmelweis reflex which is the predisposition to deny new information that challenges our established views; and the overconfidence effect which involves unwarranted confidence in one’s own knowledge, just to name a few.

6-If a lie is told enough times, people will assume it is true. It is not a stretch to understand why people would believe something if they hear it enough. People expect that lies will be disproved and fade away. So if the lies continue to be heard, people assume, then they must be true.

Taylor concludes: “Ultimately, politicians lie because, due to the six reasons above, the cost/benefit ratio for lying is in their favor. Politicians run this calculation when they create or shift a damaging narrative, attack an opponent, or respond to indefensible claims against them….So, politicians lie when they believe that dishonesty is the best policy for getting elected.”

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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