There are the lies that spill from the mouths of politicians, and there are the lies we tell ourselves, and each other, every day. Maria Hartwig, a psychologist who studies lying at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, talks with Bob about how our paradoxical views about lying in everyday life inform the way we judge the lies of our leaders.
"Tema di Otto e Mezzo" by Nino Rota
BOB: There are the lies that spill from the mouths of politicians, and the lies we tell ourselves and each other, every day. Maria Hartwig, a social psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who focuses on lying, says that there’s a notable challenge in trying to calculate how often people lie, because, well, you know…
HARTWIG: Given the moral status of lying, if you ask people a question they might lie in response. Nevertheless the studies that we have on lying shows that everybody lies and people tend to lie at least a couple of times a day.
BOB: Now there are lies and there are lies. There is "I never had sex with that woman Miss Lewinsky" and there is "oh what a beautiful baby!"
HARTWIG: I suspect that many lies that are told on the fly in social life we don't even stop to register that they're lies. And the lie told to a friend in that instance is in all likelihood told to spare them from any negative feelings. We tell them because we care about them.
BOB: Now there's yet another category that I think is not unique to politicians but it's very much in their province, and that is saying things not so much to deceive as to just seduce an audience. There's a term of art for this --
HARTWIG: There is.
BOB: And that is?
HARTWIG: It's bull--t. This is a term from the philosopher Harry Frankfurt. He pointed out that when telling a lie you know what the truth is and you're deliberately trying to cover it up. In contrast when people produce bull--t speech, they have little or no interest in what the actual facts are. The motivation lies elsewhere, it's because you want to win. Whether this is a correct representation of reality or not, is secondary.
BOB: And we've had a very trenchant example of that recently, it's entirely possible that Donald Trump wasn't lying when he said this:
TRUMP: I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down, and I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering!
BOB: There were no contemporaneous police reports or complaints from citizens. The journalism did not bear this description out in any way shape or form and yet that's his story and he's sticking with it, not necessarily because he's lying, simply mis-remembering, which I guess is what makes eyewitnesses some of whose testimony can send someone else to the death chamber not necessarily reliable.
HARTWIG: Right. So, whenever you face a statement that clearly deviates from the facts that you have, you have to make one of three judgments, and they're very difficult to make if not impossible. One is that the person is simply misremembering, the second is that the person is lying, that they know that this didn't happen, and the third is that they simply don't care. And that will put them in the Frankfurt's bull---t category.
BOB: We've established that everyone's a liar, that nobody wants to be branded a liar, that people yet confess to being a liar at least when it comes to social lies, and yet another that we demand in politicians a level of truthfulness that we don't exhibit in our own lives and then still again that we have a tendency to believe what they say even though we also believe that all politicians lie.
HARTWIG: You're right that there are many paradoxes in how we think about lies. If I'm telling a lie to you, I can justify it because of reasons x y and z, and it doesn't necessarily in my own self image make me a bad person. But if you're lying to me or I imagine that you are, it reflects negatively on your character. There is a classic study conducted in the 1960's where people are asked to evaluate a whole bunch of different adjectives that describes ways in which you can be - abrasive, forthcoming. 555 different labels that you can place onto people. The worst thing it seems that you can be is a liar. Yet, the people who filled out that questionnaire in all likelihood told at least one lie during that day. Politicians of course face a very difficult task because circumstances that are involved in being a politician invite dishonest speech, more so than ordinary life. They have to produce a lot of speech, which increases the probability that you will tell a lie. And there's such a strong motivation to say things that you think that people want to hear. My suspicion is that it's not really the case that a certain type of people is attracted to this role of a politician, where you get to fib and manipulate endlessly, I think it's --
BOB: That they as a practical matter have to fib, because there is a penalty often for being caught in a truth.
HARTWIG: Yes. They might have come to the conclusion that it would be more damaging to actually be honest.
BOB: Which is the final paradox, is it not? That while we claim to demand and expect truth from our candidates, we actually turn out not to like candor any more than we like that brutally honest in our family or our workplace who just gives you their unvarnished thoughts, come what may.
HARTWIG: I think people have a very conflicted relationship with getting the truth. i think they want the truth if it fits with what they want to hear.
BOB: What would Jack Nicholson say?
HARTWIG: Well, that they can't handle it. And I think that's probably right. In many instances, they wouldn't necessarily want to live in a world where honesty was universal.
BOB: Maria, thank you very much.
HARTWIG: Thank you.
BOB: Maria Hartwig is a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, where her specialty is lying.
JACK NICHOLSON: YOU want answers?
TOM CRUISE: I WANT THE TRUTH
JACK NICHOLSON: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!!
BROOKE: Coming up, how the media have responded to some of history’s most toxic lies. Call it, FACTS News.