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The Rise of Lies and the Demise of Shame

As Mary McCarthy famously wrote of Lillian Hellman, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” This observation now has particular applicability to Republican congressman George Santos. He’s biracial. He’s a Jew; no, he later explained, he’s Jew-ish. His mother died on 9/11. He went to two universities. He’s wealthy. He is a Ukrainian descendant of Holocaust survivors. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Gerard Kassar, chair of the Conservative Party of New York State, told Washington Post reporters on December 31. “His entire life seems to be made up. Everything about him is fraudulent.” When a politician is shocked about lies and deceptions, you know we have hit the nadir. Nowadays, for your lie to get attention, you really have to think big. One lie isn’t enough; you must pile them on.

Time to think critically about lying.

Everybody lies. Toddlers start lying as soon as they start speaking, suggesting that deception evolved right along with language as an adaptive strategy. My friend and longtime colleague Carole Wade told me of searching the house early one morning for her three-year-old son, finally finding him in the pantry with cookie crumbs all over his face. “I told you not to eat those cookies,” she said sternly. “Me no eating cookies, Mommy,” he said.

Young Jason lied for the clearest and most universal of reasons: to avoid punishment and loss of (cookie-crumbed) face. At first, children’s lies are impulsive, caught-in-the-act defenses, and only with age do children develop the cognitive abilities to understand the likely consequences of a lie (and also to lie more efficiently).

I was an expert witness for the defense at a military trial in which a man was accused of sexually abusing an 8-yearold child. The girl, in the midst of being beaten by her father (“disciplining her,” as he called it), had suddenly shouted, “He touched me!” The father stopped immediately and took her to a doctor, who demanded details. Who touched you? Where? How often? When? This poor little girl, who only wanted her father to stop hitting her, was now forced into more lies to support the original one, ending with a false allegation against the one name she could come up with quickly: her father’s best friend and neighbor, who was immediately arrested. I was struck by a question posed to me by a juror: “Why would she lie?” he asked. She was not lying, I explained, in the sense that adults use the word: saying what one knows to be an untruth with the intention to deceive. She simply wanted her father to stop beating her, and her first lie succeeded. Yet she, a child, would have no understanding of the likely long-term consequences of her impulsive remark — that the friend would be arrested, that there would be a trial, that her lie would feed on itself, that she could not ever renege and tell the truth because her father would be even angrier to learn that she “lied” about his friend. She was ensnared.

As this story shows, lies live in the space between truth and consequences. Humans have only about a 50-50 chance of accurately detecting someone else’s lie. As psychologist Paul Ekman, famous for his early research on facial expressions of emotion, once speculated, evidence suggests that human societies muddle along best when we are able to lie but get away with it only sometimes — and also when we can’t be 100 percent certain we can discern anyone else’s lies. This faculty allows lies to serve as truth’s handmaiden, a close ally if not quite an honorable one, creating a fuzzy line that permits the social niceties that keep relationships humming along (“that outfit is stunning on you”; “I’m sorry I missed your wedding, but my goldfish died and I was grieving”). We sometimes call those kinds of lies “good manners.” Of course, sometimes our lies explicitly shield the truth in the name of self-preservation — to avoid getting divorced, fired, punished, or beaten up.

That military juror’s question to me revealed the individualist bias inherent in thinking about lies: It’s all in the person. Is he or she telling a lie, or is that person a liar? There are those who are liars: they lie as often as they breathe; having no core self or moral compass, they simply morph into whatever they want to be or say that day. Fortunately, they are not the norm, which is why such individuals are called “pathological” liars. At the other end of the spectrum are those who strive to live by their core values of honesty and kindness, which is why they are often called “whistle-blowers,” or “moralists,” or “naïve idiots.”

The rest of us fall somewhere along a continuum, lying consciously to others for self-protection or self-enhancement, as the occasion arises. For the majority, therefore, lying is more of a social phenomenon than a psychological or irrational one. Social psychologist Mark Frank, who has been studying deception for many years, observes that “There is a particular structure to every situation in which a lie is told”: the person who lies, their target, their motive, the form of the lie, and, crucially, the stakes associated with telling the lie — what is to be gained, what lost. Lying to avoid punishment is among the first motives to emerge in young children, especially lying to parents, who have the power to punish them, and it remains the number one motive in adulthood, where “punishment” takes more varied and subtle forms. Other leading motives are lying to protect a loved one, to be “loyal” to peers, to avoid embarrassment, and to gain a reward in attention, praise, self-esteem, or promotion.

Thus, to fully understand when and why a person is likely to lie, we need to know what the stakes are for telling the truth versus making something up to deliberately deceive. What does a lie stand to bring them, and what are the consequences if they are caught out?

And that brings us back to George Santos. The real tragedy of this story is not that he is a pathetic fool, but rather that there were no serious consequences to his lies: his fellow citizens nonetheless entrusted him to hold office, he got away with his outrageous claims for years, and the guardrails of the social norms that might once have protected us from pathological liars, con men, and shameless wooers of votes are disintegrating. In the Trump era, much has been said about the line between a truth and a lie, but the greater social danger is the obliteration of the line between a lie and its consequences. Once upon a time, anyone bullshitting as blatantly as Santos would have been shamed or laughed out of office. Today, however, anyone’s lie, no matter how outrageous or delusionally conspiratorial or batshit crazy, will find thousands, even millions, of supporters.

How did we get to this point? Not because there’s something in the drinking water that’s making people lie more. It’s because, one step at a time, our society’s moral and social standards have been changing, to the point where, for many, telling the truth is for suckers. I recently reread the ethicist Daniel Callahan’s book The Cheating Culture, which delineates those steps. Titles of eight of his chapters tell the story:

  • “Everybody Does It”
  • Cheating in a Bottom-line Economy
  • Whatever It Takes
  • A Question of Character
  • Temptation Nation
  • Trickle-Down Corruption
  • Cheating from the Starting Line
  • Crime and No Punishment.

Callahan wrote this in 2004. Talk about being prescient. END

About the Author

Carol Tavris, PhD, is a social psychologist who has written hundreds of articles, book reviews, and op-eds on many topics in psychological science. Her books include Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), with Elliot Aronson; Estrogen Matters; and The Mismeasure of Woman. A Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, she has received numerous awards for her efforts to promote science and skepticism, including an award from the Center for Inquiry’s Independent Investigations Group; and an honorary doctorate from Simmons College for her work in promoting critical thinking and gender equity.

This article was published on May 19, 2023.

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