Can the Science of Lying Explain Trump’s Support?
This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center
Donald Trump tells lies.
Don’t take my word for it: The Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization PolitiFact rates half of Trump’s disputed public statements to be completely false, as of this writing, with most of the rest assessed as “mostly false” or “half true.” PolitiFact deems only four percent to be simply “true.” By contrast, they have rated as false a mere 14 percent of President Obama’s claims since 2007.
“Trump tells more untruths than any previous president,” says George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist who edits the Presidential Studies Quarterly. “There is no one that is a close second.”
But Trump’s political path presents a paradox. Far from slowing his momentum, his deceit seemed only to strengthen his support through the primary and national election. Now, every time a new lie is exposed, his approval rating doesn’t seem to waver very much. How does the former reality-TV star get away with it? How can he tell so many lies and still win support from millions of Americans?
Journalists and researchers have suggested many answers, from simple ignorance to an aging electorate addicted to fear-mongering cable news. But there is another explanation that no one seems to have entertained: It is that Trump is telling “blue” lies—a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen the bonds among the members of that group.
As University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee explains, blue lies fall in between generous “white” lies and selfish “black” ones. “You can tell a blue lie against another group,” he says, which makes it simultaneously selfless and self-serving. “For example, you can lie about your team’s cheating in a game, which is antisocial, but helps your team.”
From this perspective, lying is a feature, not a bug, of Trump’s campaign and presidency. It serves to bind his supporters together and strengthen his political base—even as it infuriates and confuses most everyone else. In the process, he is revealing some complicated truths about the psychology of our very social species.
Turning lies into weapons
Children start to tell selfish lies at about age three, as they discover adults cannot read their minds. I didn’t steal that toy. Daddy said I could. He hit me first. At around age seven, they begin to tell white lies motivated by feelings of empathy and compassion. That’s a good drawing. I love socks for Christmas. You’re funny.
Blue lies are a different category altogether, simultaneously selfish and beneficial to others—but only to those who belong to your group.
In a 2008 study of seven, nine, and 11-year-old children—the first of its kind—Kang Lee and colleagues found that children become more likely to endorse and tell blue lies as they grow older. For example, given an opportunity to lie to an interviewer about rule-breaking in the selection process of a school chess team, many were quite willing to do so, older kids more than younger ones. The children telling these lies didn’t stand to selfishly benefit; they were doing it on behalf of their school.
This line of research suggests that while black lies drive people apart and white lies draw them together, blue lies do both: They help bring some people together by deceiving those in another group. For instance, if a student lies to a teacher so her entire class can avoid punishment, her standing with classmates might actually increase.
And around the world, children grow up hearing stories of heroes who engage in deception and violence on behalf of their in-groups. In Star Wars, for example, Princess Leia lies about the location of the “secret rebel base.” In the Harry Potter novels (spoiler alert!), the entire life of double-agent Severus Snape is a lie, albeit a “blue” one, in the service of something bigger than himself.
That explains why most Americans seem to accept that our intelligence agencies lie in the interests of national security, and we laud our spies as heroes. From this perspective, blue lies are weapons in intergroup conflict. As Swedish philosopher Sissela Bok once wrote, “Deceit and violence—these are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings.” Lying and bloodshed are often framed as crimes when committed inside a group—but as virtues in a state of war.
This research—and those stories—highlight a difficult truth about our species: We are intensely social creatures, but we’re prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be “prosocial”—compassionate, empathic, generous, honest—in their groups, and aggressively antisocial toward outside groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence—and socially sanctioned deceit.
“People condone lying against enemy nations, and since many people now see those on the other side of American politics as enemies, they may feel that lies, when they recognize them, are appropriate means of warfare,” says George Edwards, one of the country’s leading scholars of the presidency.
If we see Trump’s lies not as failures of character but rather as weapons of war, then we can come to understand why his supporters might see him as an effective leader. To them, Trump isn’t Hitler (or Darth Vader, or Voldemort), as some liberals claim—he’s President Roosevelt, who repeatedly lied to the public and the world on the path to victory in World War II.
Why blue lies are proliferating now
Lies aren’t new on the American political scene.
Some politicians seemed to get away with antisocial lying, as with Bill Clinton’s deceit about his sexual infidelities; other careers were destroyed by deception, as happened with Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, among others. But historians and political scientists like Edwards seem to agree: The scale, frequency, impact, and brazenness of Trump’s lies are unprecedented.
So what has changed?
Most scholars point to political and cultural polarization as the biggest cause. Research by Alexander George Theodoridis, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced, shows that “partisanship for many Americans today takes the form of a visceral, even subconscious, attachment to a party group.” According to his studies, Democrats and Republicans have become not merely political parties but tribes, whose affiliations shape the language, dress, hairstyles, purchasing decisions, friendships, and even love lives of their members.
“Our party becomes a part of our self-concept in deep and meaningful ways,” he writes. This self-concept includes racial identity. Several studies have shown that reminding white conservatives of President Obama’s race made them much more likely to believe that, for example, he is a Muslim born in Kenya. If they do not feel Obama is one of them, this work suggests, then they are more receptive to unfounded claims that dramatize their emotional truth.
Scientists call this kind of reasoning “directionally motivated,” meaning that conclusions are driven by feelings, not facts—and studies find that this is our default mode. As right-wing radio talk host Rush Limbaugh implied in the wake of a lie-riddled presidential press conference, facts don’t matter. What matters is what’s “in your heart.”
That’s why, when the truth threatens our identity, that truth gets dismissed. For millions and millions of Americans, climate change is a hoax, Hillary Clinton ran a sex ring out of a pizza parlor, and immigrants cause crime. Whether they truly believe those falsehoods or not is debatable—and possibly irrelevant. The research to date suggests that they see those lies as useful weapons in a tribal us-against-them competition that pits the “real America” against those who would destroy it.
Indeed, when I told the truth in the first sentence of this piece and said Donald Trump lies, I almost certainly inflamed readers who identify with the president and sees him as their champion. The truth may feel to readers like an attack on who they are, as human beings.
How anger fuels lying
Here we come to the role of anger.
Sociologists like Arlie Hochschild and Katherine J. Cramer have found widespread rage and resentment among GOP voters, specifically against educated, urban liberals. Other studies have found extreme hostility for constituencies that are perceived as Democratic, such as women, immigrants, and African-Americans.
This anger is the soil in which lies can grow.
In a series of four experiments described in a 2016 paper, Maurice Schweitzer and Jeremy Yip provoked participants to feel different emotions; they induced anger, for example, by giving insulting feedback on essays written in the lab (calling them “boring” or “stupid”). Then participants could play games for real money—and they were deliberately given opportunities to lie for their own gain.
The result isn’t too surprising: Participants angered by the feedback were much more likely to lie.
“Angry people focus on their self-interest,” says Schweitzer. “My research shows this.”
Thus he is not surprised by how Trump supporters have responded to the president’s lies. “Many people are angry about how they have been left behind in the current economic climate,” he says. “Trump has tapped into that anger, and he is trusted because he professes to feel angry about the same things.”
Not only has Trump tapped existing anger, but his rhetoric has fueled and amplified it. “Trump has created a siege-like mentality,” says Schweitzer. “Foreign countries are out to get us; the media is out to get him. This is a rallying cry that bonds people together.”
It’s important to note that Democrats have shown themselves to be susceptible to the effects of polarization and anger as well. During the antagonistic Democratic primary, lies proliferated within the party about Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and their supporters. Many Democrats fell for those lies for the same reason people fall for all blue lies: because they helped their cause, providing ammunition for their battle against the other side.
Where does that leave us? In a political landscape shaped by rage, deceit, and tribalism, how can we highlight facts and truth?
How to defy blue lies
It’s in blue lies that the best and worst in humanity can come together. They reveal our loyalty, our ability to cooperate, our capacity to care about the people around us and to trust them. At the same time, blue lies display our predisposition to hate and dehumanize outsiders, and our tendency to delude ourselves.
This hints at the solution, which starts with the idea that we must appeal to the best in each other. While that may sound awfully idealistic, the applications of that insight are very concrete.
In a new paper published by the journal Advances in Political Psychology, D.J. Flynn and Brendan Nyhan, both of Dartmouth College, along with Jason Reifler, summarize everything science knows about “false and unsupported beliefs about politics,” and what we can do to counter them.
They recommend several simple techniques, such as presenting information as imagery or graphics, instead of just text. The best combination appears to be graphics with stories. It’s not enough to negate a false story, as linguist George Lakoff has argued—you need to provide an alternative narrative to get people to pay attention. Simple fact-checking, of the kind that PolitiFact provides, is not effective with partisan audiences all by itself. The facts need to become part of a compelling story, too.
But this runs up against another scientific insight, one that will be frustrating to those who would oppose Trump’s lies: Who tells the story matters. Study after study suggests that people are much more likely to be convinced of a fact when it “originates from ideologically sympathetic sources,” as the paper says—and it helps a lot if those sources look and sound like them.
That suggests it is white conservatives who must call out Trump’s lies if they are to be stopped. But if you’re not part of that group, what can you do in the meantime?
We can start by verifying facts and refusing to promote ones that we can’t, seeking out different and competing news sources, cultivating a diverse social network, sharing information with integrity—and admitting when we fail. In their paper, Flynn, Nyhan, and Reifler describe a series of research-validated steps we can take to encourage ourselves and the people around us to stick to reality:
- Put some critical distance between you and your groups. We feel intense “social pressure to think and act in ways that are consistent with important group identities.” When you feel that compulsion to go along with the herd, remind yourself that you are not the group and the group is not you. We can also encourage others to do the same, honoring non-conformist positions and tendencies.
- Set the intention to be accurate—and state your intention. Psychologist call this “accuracy motivation,” and lab experiments find that reminding people to make accuracy a goal influences their reasoning and behavior. This you can do in daily life by just talking about accuracy as a value, and trying to make the pursuit of truth transparent to the people around you.
- Incentivize accuracy motivation. Part of the reason why so many journalists, scientists, teachers, and librarians have spoken out through their professional groups against the administration’s lies is almost certainly that accuracy is rewarded in their training and in their jobs. In a society where public lying is becoming more commonplace, we need to begin to think about more ways to reward accuracy and punish errors or outright fabrications.
In the end, it’s quite simply up to each one of us, Democrats and Republicans, to decide if we are going to live in truth or embrace lies. That doesn’t mean always getting it right; to err is human. But to apologize, forgive, empathize, acknowledge your own biases, and ask questions—that’s human, too.
Donald Trump lies, yes, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us, his supporters included, need to follow his example.
A much shorter version of this article was originally published in Scientific American. Read the original.