Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Lies, Damn Lies and Politics

Why would Psychology Today run an article explaining how to be an effective liar? In principle, a therapy-centered publication like PT would want you to overcome your sociopathological impulses, to better yourself, to develop your good qualities and to become a happier human being.

Perhaps they should start calling their magazine: Psychopathology Today.  It sounds like a winning concept, doesn't it?

Obviously, the magazine is not talking about the little white lies we all tell when we do not want to hurt someone's feelings. They are talking about the gross falsehoods that are designed to trick or even abuse another individual.

Beyond that, for all I know PT has included this column because it wants to help you to develop a skill that you will find useful in your career. Of course, there’s one career where the ability to lie, and to lie well confers clear advantages. That would be politics. After all, Bob Kerrey once said that Bill Clinton was “an unusually good liar.” Is any contemporary politician more successful than Bill Clinton?

How can you develop your skill at lying?

First, your lies should be “safe, legal and rare.” That’s a bit of a stretch, but PT recommends that you only lie on rare occasions. If you fill your discourse with truths and truisms, most people will assume that your every word smacks of the truth. If you have established a reputation for credibility, an occasional lie will more often pass unnoticed.

Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to research the truth of your statements and most people do not like to think that they are bad judges of character. Convince them that you have integrity and they will have good reason to believe everything you say.

But then, PT continues, someone who lies all the time is a pathological liar and pathological liars are more likely to be called out.

It adds the more practical point: the more you lie the more difficult it is to keep your lies straight. A few, well placed lies are far safer than a series of falsehoods, because you are less likely to be caught.

Of course, a good liar is a purposeful liar. He does not lie for the fun of it; he lies to advance a political agenda or even his political career.

PT points out:

Truly expert fabricators, on the other hand, save their ammunition - they don't bother to lie unless it's going to get them something they really want.

In most cases, a good lie contains an element of the truth. By all accounts when Bill Clinton exclaimed that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” he was saying something that is, strictly speaking, factually correct. If you assume that “sexual relations” only refers to acts of coitus then he was not really lying.

Since he knew that he was telling the truth he could plausibly be indignant that anyone would think otherwise.

At PT points out, most people will key in on the depth of your conviction. They will not bother to check the facts; if you are unshakably convinced that what you are saying, most people will believe you.

However much people dislike liars they do not like individuals who are direct and confrontational much more. Liars take advantage of the fact that anyone who wants to call them out on the lie will look confrontation and combative. Most people will opt for not accusing a liar because they do not want to get down in the mud with a professional mud wrestler. 

PT offers an example:

The fact is, just as most of us are uncomfortable telling lies, most are uncomfortable accusing others. This discomfort can be used in the liar's favor. "You'll often see politicians respond to accusations with aggression," says Stan Walters, author of The Truth About Lying: Everyday Techniques for Dealing with Deception. "What they'll do is drive critics away from the issue, so they're forced to gather up their resources to fight another scrimmage."

Recently, when President Obama was lying about his record or about Mitt Romney, the latter could not bring himself to counterattack. He might have believed that it was beneath his dignity. Or else, he might have believed that he could not risk looking like he was attacking an African-American.

The same truth was at work when 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lied about being under fire in Bosnia. The record of her trip to Bosnia showed unequivocally that there was no gun fire. Yet, people did not attack Hillary Clinton because they did not want to look like they were attacking a woman.

A really good liar will exploit your instinct to be courteous and respectful.

Barack Obama is a street fighter. He follows the Alinsky rules for community organizing. He believes in fomenting disorganization and discontent. He cares a lot more about winning than about telling the truth.

To fight him Republicans chose two men who were notably genteel. Whether McCain and Romney were too proud to fight or too nice to engage in such combat or were just afraid of the scorn that would be heaped on them for attacking Obama, they both walked away from the fight. Also, both refused to call out the media on its evident bias.

In the last election only Newt Gingrich was so fearless that he dared attack both Obama and the media. But Republicans rejected him because they found his belligerence unseemly. Many of them were repulsed by him.  Or perhaps they did not want to be subjected to the counterattacks that would come at them if ever they had accused Obama or the media of lying.

PT explains that a good liar must have an enhanced capacity for empathy. He must, as the famed Clintonian statement goes: “feel your pain.”

A good liar knows what his audience wants to hear. He knows what will make them feel like they are better than they are. So he tells a lie that confirms their high opinion of themselves. Politicians who blame minority group failures on racism are telling minority group members that they are better than their achievement levels would suggest. In truth, such politicians have no real solutions to the problems of the American minority communities, but they are happy to exchange lies for votes. Besides, by telling them that their situation is not their fault they are also telling that they do not, as individuals have the power to change it.

It would also seem that a good liar knows what his audience does not want to hear. When the American public had to decide between Bill Clinton’s assertion that he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky and the Starr report about what Clinton and Lewinsky actually did, it preferred the more sanitized version.

Whether he knew it or not, the only way to call out Bill Clinton on his lie was to discuss openly what he and Miss Lewinsky really did do. No one wanted to hear about it. No parents wanted to have to explain to their children what a semen-stained dress is, and many of them blamed Kenneth Starr for putting such information out in public.

And then PT offers an added nugget: good liars like to lie. Bad liars want above all else to change the subject.

Good liars enjoy lying. They put in the time and effort to think through each and every wrinkle in their script. Once they believe that it is clear, coherent and cogent they want to show it off. They proud that they have mastered a skill. It’s like an artist who is especially proud of his work.

A really good liar does not just present a single piece of false information. He knows that he needs to embellish the story, to fill in the details in order to make it more credible.

Lying is hard work. If your job is politics it can bring you success and riches beyond your imagination.


Lastango said...

Heh. In the immortal words of Slick Willie:

"There is no evidence, so you can deny, deny, deny."

As former Senator Bob Kerrey and fellow Democrat once said of him, "He's an uncommonly good liar. Uncommonly good."

Anonymous said...

The author does say "(By the way, this information is offered as a way to help detect deceit in others, not to practice it yourself. Honestly!)"

I'm sort of surprised the article doesn't mention the inner aspects of lying, that is, how we learn to think we're good people while we lie. I'd tend to think the vast majority consider themselves "good people" and "more honest than average" and so somehow we're able to do this self-deception with innocent naviety.

If the article really wants us to understand the lies of others, I think learning how we lie to ourselves is more illuminating.

And a more important question than busting the deceivers is to ask what you really want - do you want to punish someone for being afraid of responsibility for their mistakes, to shame them, or do you want them to mature and activate their own conscience?

We all know as children, you're punished not for what you do, but getting caught, or so it seems.

Stuart talks about helping your political rivals "save face" in negotiations, but when you have caught your rival in a trap that shows their transgressions, you have a great incentive to publicly shame them, to "destroy" their reputation by their own bad behavior. So you can feel completely innocent in the moment of victory, and yet its not a fair fight if your own transgressions are not in the public eye. So it also seems we're born hypocrites, able and willing to scapegoat someone else's weakness that can't be denied than see your own.

I think back to the garden of eden, when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge (of good and evil), and then knew they were naked and felt ashamed.

Feeling exposed, defenseless is such a horrid place that we all develop defenses to protect ourselves, and so the question for me is how do we use our will to overrule our automatic defenses, when we know we're hurting someone else?

Most lying to me seems a very boring kind, just hiding your shame, rather than trying to gain something. I remember in my 20's recognizing I could lie without thinking, but if someone asked me a direct question, or repeated a question after an initial lie, I was compelled to think a moment what is true, and bring that out, even if not as simply as the other person likes.

If you ask a cowardly man "Did you fart?" and he denies it, you can ask again if you really need to know and give him another chance to come clean. Or you can laugh it off and be content to know you haven't earned this person's trust yet, and you have some work to do.