While many argue that we are in a post-truth era, fuelled by US President Donald Trump and the phenomenon of fake news, some scholars argue that deception has always been ubiquitous. What is the truth about lying? Maria Armoudian is joined by Timothy Levine, David Livingstone-Smith and Briony Swire-Thompson.

Timothy R. Levine is a Distinguished Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. He is the editor of Encyclopedia of Deception, Vol. 1 & 2.

David Livingstone-Smith is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England. He is the author of Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others and The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War.

Briony Swire-Thompson is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Northeastern University. She is a co-author of ‘Processing Political Misinformation: Comprehending the Trump Phenomena’, and ‘Correcting False Information in Memory: Manipulating the strength of misinformation encoding and its retraction’.

 

Interview Podcast 

 

Interview Transcript 

I thought  we would start with this idea that in our media now we are in a post-truth era. This has largely been because of either the man who has been elected president to the United States, Donald Trump, or because of the accusations of false news. In the past, David Livingstone-Smith, we have talked about how lying and deception are relatively ubiquitous. I wonder if we are in a different era. Is it more of the same? Is it less of the same?

David Livingstone-Smith: I don’t think history¬†is¬†divided into eras really. I¬†mean this is an imposition of categories¬†that we¬†place¬†on¬†history to try¬†and¬†make sense of things. Lying and¬†deception, because I¬†use the¬†term very broadly, is indeed a ubiquitous feature of human life, and so it’s not like suddenly we’re launched into a time when truth doesn’t matter anymore. However,¬†there are historical circumstances¬†and¬†political circumstances that¬†I¬†think, at least in the¬†United¬†States,¬†make lying¬†with impunity a lot more tempting¬†and¬†a lot easier.

Easy and¬†tempting because it’s more permitted when the leader is also lying?

DLS: I think any politician worth their salt is going to be a very skilled image manipulator, and lying¬†is a form of image manipulation. A skillful politician¬†deceives people¬†in the way they want to be deceived. Let’s put it¬†that¬†way. I¬†think¬†Trump¬†has the salesman’s instinct for doing this. And that’s what¬†I¬†think is different, not that political lying is something new. That’s ridiculous. We’ve known since¬†Plato’s Republic that lying¬†is a crucial part of politics. ‚ÄúPoliticians,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúserve up sweet nothing, sweet pastries that are not nourishing,¬†but taste good.‚ÄĚ What’s different is that¬†Donald¬†Trump has really established for himself and for others that he can push the envelope very far indeed if he tells people the sorts of things that motivate them in the way he wants to motivate them.

Timothy Levine, do you agree?

Timothy Levine: I¬†agree with everything about¬†Trump. I¬†would like to push back a little bit on the idea that lying is frequent in our communication. I think the data shows pretty clearly that most people are honest most of the time.¬†Most people lie less than the average person lies¬†because lying is not normally distributed. There are a few people¬†that¬†lie¬†a¬†lot, but most of us are pretty honest,¬†even with politicians.¬†Most politicians, when they get¬†fact-checked,¬†they don’t always come out true, but they come out true more often than not. Donald¬†Trump is¬†the clear¬†exception to this. I¬†don’t know that there has ever been a politician in recent memory that’s¬†close to his difficulty with the truth. However,¬†even then, remember those are only the statements that get fact-checked,¬†and there are¬†a¬†lot of statements that don’t get fact checked, primarily because there’s no reason to¬†check them.

One of¬†the things in your research,¬†Timothy, is that people lie when they have a reason to lie, and if that reason has been taken away, then they don’t usually lie. How do we make sense of that?

TL: People¬†lie or deceive¬†when the truth is a¬†problem. And¬†for¬†probably most every day adults,¬†the truth isn’t especially problematic for us. For example, if¬†I’m on the radio talking about my research findings, the reason I’m here is to explain that to you. Hopefully the truth‚Äôs not a problem.¬†Hopefully I’m not fudging my data or making up evidence, and if¬†I¬†were,¬†it¬†probably wouldn’t make sense to have a show like this.

I wonder also since you’re in the communication field and one of the issues in communication deals with the idea of contagion. Is contagion a problem when it comes to deception?

TL: I¬†don’t know. Good question. However,¬†I do¬†think¬†the really insidious thing about the current political environment is not only the giving¬†of¬†false information, but attacking the credibility of those who fact-check. So¬†now the fact-checkers are¬†the “fake¬†media,”¬†and this,¬†I¬†find, really troubling because¬†how are we to know¬†what’s true or not? And it seems to me that communication can only work when we trust what others are saying. We¬†move towards anarchy if just anything¬†goes.

That’s something else you’ve written about, which is how much we actually need to be able to trust in order for our general society to function.

TL: Yeah, it’s really hard to be close to people or have good cooperative relationships if you can’t trust them. I’m a professor.¬†If students can’t trust me, there’s no reason to pay the high tuition dollars. It would be silly. Things¬†unravel pretty¬†quickly if we can’t believe what other people say.¬†Communication¬†just¬†loses all¬†its¬†utility.

Briony Swire-Thompson¬†this might be the place to bring you in. You’ve¬†been studying when people accept or don’t accept information that’s wrong. What can you tell us about this process?

Briony Swire-Thompson: What we find is even¬†if¬†people¬†are¬†presented with¬†really good valid evidence-based¬†correction, they might update their beliefs in the short period of time.¬†But if we measure it,¬†say, a week¬†later, three weeks later, they¬†start¬†to re-believe in the original misconception. And¬†I¬†guess that’s one of¬†the phenomenon’s that’s¬†pretty scary. We¬†call it the continued influence¬†of misinformation, because misinformation or these lies that¬†people are presenting really do have an impact on our¬†reasoning and¬†memory.

Walk us through this. First of all, they hear the deception or the lie and if they accept it, then what happens?

BST: The way that we study it in the lab¬†is we often present people with multiple pieces of information, and we ask people to rate on a zero-to-ten scale: How much¬†do¬†you believe in this piece¬†of information? And once they’ve done their ratings, we give them¬†a little blurb¬†to say, ‚ÄúWell this is actually true because of these reasons,‚ÄĚ or, ‚ÄúThis is false.‚ÄĚ And¬†then we measure participants over¬†a¬†period of time. What we¬†do find is they’re¬†quite happy to update their beliefs in the short-term, but¬†these corrections don’t seem to last.

There was another study, which suggested that the effect of belief depends on who is attached to the information.

BST: This is¬†actually¬†a study¬†that we¬†did¬†using¬†Trump¬†because he was an incredibly¬†polarising¬†figure. We set up these studies in 2015 and 2016,¬†and he was obviously already¬†a highly¬†divisive figure. One of the items we used was¬†Trump said that the MMR¬†vaccine causes autism. The other presented just the information saying the MMR vaccine causes autism. Then we asked, ‚ÄúHow much do you believe in¬†this¬†statement?‚ÄĚ We found initially,¬†straight off the bat, without correcting peoples‚Äô¬†misconceptions,¬†if people were¬†Trump supporters, they were¬†far more likely to believe in the misconception. So¬†what we think is happening here is that people are using political figures, people who they trust as what we call like a heuristic¬†or mental¬†shortcut for judging the recipe of information. So¬†they are like,¬†‚ÄúWell,¬†I¬†trust¬†Trump and¬†therefore¬†I¬†think what he says is true.‚ÄĚ And¬†I¬†don’t think this is necessarily only for¬†political¬†figures,¬†or¬†only¬†for Republicans or Trump supporters. I¬†think trust and source credibility¬†is¬†a big thing when judging how true or false information is.

It sort of goes hand in hand also with the work that some psychologists have done with the brain scans, and once people have become sort of wedded to a particular position, or a particular candidate, they actually measure the cognitive dissonance that they experienced when somebody gave them counter-information. David, what do you make of this?

DLS: Let’s actually¬†start¬†with something a little bit more basic. You’ve sometimes spoken of lies and sometimes spoken of deception, and¬†I¬†think one of the differences between¬†Tim and¬†me¬†is that¬†Tim has a pretty fine-grain notion of lying, while I¬†see lying as pretty much synonymous with deception. And¬†I¬†do agree with him, by the way, that most of the time, we don’t lie.¬†If that were not the case,¬†then¬†lies would have no utility as the story of the¬†boy who cried wolf¬†tells us. In terms of¬†contagion, I¬†think it’s¬†maybe a little bit of a misleading metaphor. What happens,¬†I¬†think, is that¬†prominent¬†people, people who are looked up to and in the case of¬†Trump, looked up to as a sort of saviour,¬†set¬†norms. They set norms of permissibility by their behaviour. If¬†someone like¬†Trump suggests that one can play fast and loose with the truth,¬†I¬†doubt very much that this does not impact those who look up to him.

In that case, would just be those that look up to him that would therefore be affected? Would it create a culture of deception?

DLS: You know these things sort of create a cultural atmosphere, and presumably there are¬†a¬†lot of psychological processes at work here, and¬†I¬†wouldn’t presume to specify them.

BST: I was just going to¬†mention that that’s actually one of the things we measured in¬†our study on Donald Trump. Even if people who supported¬†Trump updated¬†their beliefs¬†that¬†what he was¬†saying¬†wasn’t true,¬†and¬†were like, ‚ÄúYes, we completely acknowledge¬†that what he’s saying is¬†false.‚ÄĚ It¬†didn’t actually have any impact on their voting preferences. So people were just as likely to vote for him even if they were acknowledging that they knew that he was¬†spreading inaccurate¬†information. What we assumed¬†this¬†meant was that why people like political¬†figures is¬†made up¬†of¬†a whole range of factors,¬†but yet¬†I¬†guess being truthful wasn’t¬†one¬†of them.

DLS: That’s pretty cool research. I¬†think that what goes on with authoritarian leaders¬†is that the faithful followers see them as sort of being in touch with a deeper truth. So although the details might not correspond to reality, they’re seen as articulating something which is true, and¬†in a¬†more profound¬†and¬†deep¬†sense. That’s one way that this problem gets negotiated.

TL: My theoretical perspective is¬†called ‚Äútruth to false theory.‚ÄĚ And the basic idea is that we tend to believe other people unless we have reason not¬†to. Our default state is belief and then at times we’re motivated to think carefully about is this true¬†or not? For example, with the followers of a particular leader, they have a stake¬†in¬†believing this person, so they’re decidedly not motivated to believe them. The other side of the political spectrum they’re¬†scrutinising, and so they are looking for if the statements are true. Then they’re more likely to try to fact-check¬†and look at that. It’s a much more general principle.¬†It‚Äôs like when we’re driving, we’re kind of on autopilot. We’re not really consciously thinking about things,¬†and then¬†something comes and grabs our attention. Some driver is behaving unusually or something, and we start thinking about it. Communication is a lot like this too. We tend to do it very automatically, and it’s only when we really¬†have to¬†start thinking about it [that we ask] is this deceptive? If it’s not prompted in some way,¬†if it’s not triggered, and one of the things that can trigger it would be a politician from an opposite party. One of¬†the¬†things that could trigger it would be a sales person who¬†is¬†giving you a hard sales pitch. Maybe in certain kinds¬†of online gaming environments or internet environments, or you might be very¬†on¬†guard for¬†people¬†who are¬†saying things that are false. However,¬†in most of our daily lives, this just doesn’t occur to us. So this is why I think that we are much more likely to be sceptical¬†of people¬†that¬†have different belief systems than us, or are in different¬†tribes or different groups.

Is this a problem in an age where there are massive numbers of websites that might proliferate information that’s absolutely false?

TL: Right. Or with all the email phishing¬†attacks. If you’re just going along¬†on autopilot, it’s¬†easy to click on those links. You have to be actively thinking about it, and actively thinking about it takes effort away from doing other things.

When you studied why people lie‚ÄĒbecause¬†they¬†had to have a reason‚ÄĒwhat were those reasons?

TL: The exception is¬†with pathological lying,¬†which I define as lying without a reason. Though¬†occasionally you run into people who will tell a lie when the truth would work better. But for most of us, the reason we deceive¬†is that for some reason, the truth is a problem. Maybe we did something wrong. Transgressions are a big reason. We did something wrong. We’re trying to hide it. We want to make a positive impression on other people. There might be some kind of economic advantage to it, you know,¬†‚ÄúI¬†want you to think my product is really better than it is.‚ÄĚ Or,¬†‚ÄúI¬†want you to vote for me.‚ÄĚ However,¬†a¬†surprisingly big one is a category my¬†authors and¬†co-authors¬†call¬†‚Äúavoidance¬†lies.‚ÄĚ Basically, your friend, or somebody, wants you to do something. You don’t want to go out to dinner with them for whatever reason, but you don’t want to say, ‚ÄúNo¬†I¬†don’t want to go out with you.‚ÄĚ So you make up some kind of reason like,¬†‚ÄúI¬†have plans,‚ÄĚ or¬†‚ÄúI’m sorry I have a prior engagement,‚ÄĚ or something like that, but the truth is you just don’t want to do it.

So how ubiquitous did you find that this deception, this actual lying, is among people? Is it all the time every day, or is it really rare?

TL: I think¬†most people don’t lie very often. We’ve done nationwide surveys in¬†the UK and US¬†where most people say they haven’t¬†really lied in the last twenty-four hours. And we gave them a pretty broad definition of it, just misleading another person.

Could they be lying about lying?

TL: They could be, but there’s been some cool validation studies¬†giving¬†people the opportunity to cheat for a cash prize, and the people who¬†say they lie tend¬†to cheat, and the people who say they‚Äôre honest tend not to cheat in behavioural studies.

DLS: I’m kind of sceptical. Every day that¬†I¬†go to the supermarket, I’m asked¬†at the cash register, ‚ÄúHow are you?‚ÄĚ And¬†I’m¬†expected like everyone else to say,¬†‚ÄúI’m¬†fine.‚ÄĚ But I¬†don’t. And they find it quite a relief.¬†They are in a miserable job and have¬†been on their feet all day. However,¬†there’s a great deal of that that goes on. I¬†think people are generally unaware of the degree to which they lie, and bear in mind¬†that by lying,¬†I¬†don’t restrict lying to deliberate statements¬†intended¬†to cause others to form false¬†beliefs. I include in lying¬†any form of deception¬†which has the function of causing others to form false beliefs. So I¬†think lying is much more pervasive. I¬†agree with¬†Tim, but I¬†would put it a¬†little bit differently. The way he puts it¬†is, ‚ÄúTruth is a problem.‚Ä̬†I¬†say people lie often to get things that they value which they feel they can get more effectively by lying than¬†by¬†telling the truth. People want¬†others to love them, to think well of them and so on. But people also lie because they enjoy it. I¬†mean,¬†I¬†hold¬†as an example of that, the stories¬†that are¬†told to children about¬†Santa¬†Claus and the¬†Easter bunny and so on and so forth, which seems to me a matter of the pure exercise of power of a big strong knowledgeable person over a small vulnerable one.

TL: I tend to not see “Hello, how are you, I’m fine” as deception because I ask David how he’s doing, he says he’s fine.¬†I¬†don’t really believe he is because I¬†know that we say this all the time and there’s no deceptive function.¬†If¬†I¬†said, ‚ÄúHow are you doing?‚ÄĚ and he said, ‚ÄúI’m having a really great day‚ÄĚ, and he wasn’t, then I might be deceived. But the everyday little¬†politeness¬†rituals we have,¬†I¬†don’t think serve a deceptive function,¬†because everyone¬†knows perfectly well that this is just what we say and everybody knows that this is¬†just following this mindless sequence.

DLS: Sure,¬†but isn’t that refraining from telling the truth? So if you have someone who¬†basically feels like¬†they want¬†to jump off a bridge, and¬†I¬†say to them,¬†‚ÄúHow are you doing?‚ÄĚ and¬†they say,¬†‚ÄúFine,‚ÄĚ they are mistaken. They are¬†engaging in a social ritual even though¬†they are¬†inside dying to let someone know what¬†their¬†life is like.

TL: We¬†might be at the risk of jumping into a real¬†rabbit hole here. We want to be¬†very¬†careful,¬†I¬†think, in talking about¬†deception,¬†not to conflate truth with¬†deceptiveness because¬†I¬†can be deceptive while being one hundred percent truthful. So I¬†can say something sarcastically that I mean is literally true,¬†and¬†I¬†can say something absolutely false, like, with sarcasm, that’s not deceptive at all. I think David and¬†I¬†are on the same page on what deception¬†is, and that is that¬†deception is¬†when¬†communication or other signals¬†function to mislead someone.

I am going to bring David Livingstone-Smith in on another dimension that he’s also written about, which is self-deception. David, you have said in the past that we are frequently in a mode of self-deception and that perhaps this is to keep us from being sad or depressed or upset. What about that? Is¬†there any harm done there?

DLS: There’s not necessarily any harm done¬†there.¬†Optimal self-deception is a requirement for keeping sane¬†in this crazy world. Self-deception is a really complicated and difficult topic.¬†There are a lot of problems¬†understanding how¬†it works¬†and what it is and so on. I’m not going to get into that because that would take an hour¬†of¬†lectures¬†to try to make sense of, but¬†I¬†think that the usefulness of self-deception is broader than what you specify. Truth can be really¬†overrated. So let’s start with what you said.¬†I¬†mean,¬†I’m wearing shorts that¬†I¬†got cheap some place. They are¬†probably made by people working at ridiculous starvation wages under horrible circumstances, and¬†I¬†know that. But¬†I¬†don’t pay attention to it because if¬†I¬†pay attention to it, I would feel horrendously guilty, and guilty that¬†I’m not sufficiently politically engaged to try to help do something about those¬†sorts of things. I’m 64 years¬†old. I¬†don’t have that many years left, and¬†I¬†know I am¬†going to¬†die. That’s a bad thought. I¬†can tolerate it occasionally. I¬†know that my loved ones are going to die.¬†I¬†know that there’s tremendous suffering around me, and¬†I’m¬†a¬†darker person than most, but even I¬†ignore that stuff in order to keep going. Self-deception can have other functions as well. The assumption that the truth is always better, to know the truth about yourself is¬†always better, to know the truth about others is always better,¬†I think, is an unwarranted assumption. Self-deception can be the bomb that helps us get through the night and helps us get what we want as well, because of course if we believe our own bullshit, we’re¬†presumably much more effective at getting others to believe it.

Spoken like a true philosopher. What would the communication professor say?

TL: ¬†I¬†think self-deception is somewhat out of the realm of communication. However,¬†the work on self-deception¬†I¬†find really interesting, is¬†from an¬†evolutionary biologist by the name of¬†Robert¬†Trivers.¬†He makes the same point that¬†David made at the end that the real advantage of self-deception is that it serves others‚Äô deception that if we believe our own bullshit, then¬†we’re¬†way more believable. And¬†I’m not sure how much I agree with¬†Trivers exact argument,¬†but¬†I find it¬†really interesting, and¬†I¬†think if he’s right that it turns at least a lot of the psychological research¬†on deception on its head.

What are the costs of this, both on a person and on society in terms of communication deception? Tim, can you tell somebody’s deception not by what they say, but¬†what¬†they do?

TL: It’s the exact opposite in my research. The principle that’s guided most research on deception detection is that you want to not pay attention to what people say. You want to pay attention to what people do and various nonverbal behaviours. And that view was characterised very well in a¬†TV¬†show¬†Lie to Me.¬† What my research finds is the exact opposite. That if you’re paying attention to how people are coming off, then¬†you’re very likely to be misled. However, if you listen carefully to what they say, and if possible, fact-check,¬†hopefully understand what they say in the context in which it‚Äôs said, then we’re much better able to sort out truth from lies. And the other thing my research finds¬†is that¬†most lies that people detect are detected well after the fact. So we asked people,¬†‚ÄúThink about a time you caught somebody lying to you and¬†how¬†did you¬†find out?‚ÄĚ Something like ninety-eight percent of those¬†are¬†found out later.

You looked at relationships as well in terms of how that occurs within relationships. What did you find there?

TL: The big finding in relationships is it’s not so much the¬†lying,¬†but what the lies¬†are about. So when you lie about the wrong thing, that’s really what damages the relationship. If I’m lying to you about¬†a surprise¬†party, that’s¬†probably not going to hurt a relationship that much. But¬†spouses who are¬†lying about infidelity¬†that can¬†really hurt the relationship once the lies are uncovered. However,¬†it’s not just the lies. It’s the underlying problematic things that were being hidden.

Briony, what are your findings with regards to this, with the deceiver, or the person receiving the deceptive information?

BST: First,¬†I’d like to jump on the bandwagon¬†of definitions. With my research,¬†when¬†I¬†look into misinformation, it isn’t necessarily someone with the intent to deceive. So that could be coming back to¬†self-deception. Sometimes¬†I¬†think that¬†people believe these lies so much that they do have¬†a¬†way of coming off as believing it is true even when that’s not the case. Misinformation, it could be deception, but it¬†could also be spreading inaccurate information that people really do have¬†a¬†strong disposition to believe.

When it came to the people who returned to believing the false information do they have cognitive dissonance? Do they feel betrayed? Do they have this psychological effect? Have you interviewed them?

BST: I¬†would love to interview them. My research is¬†quantitative¬†not qualitative,¬†but¬†there have been quite a¬†few studies done online. When¬†I¬†was working¬†in a lab,¬†you actually got to speak with these people and it was always very interesting.¬†People always had these theories¬†of,¬†‚ÄúWell am I¬†remembering what you told me was true, is that what I’m mastering, or am I still¬†answering what¬†I¬†truly believe?‚ÄĚ And¬†I¬†do think that when we correct information,¬†the¬†disconnect between what people remember¬†a¬†source¬†told them and what they still believe, is definitely¬†a¬†very interesting phenomenon.

DLS: I¬†think¬†the whole¬†idea of belief is a really interesting idea. I think a lot of times when¬†people say¬†they¬†believe¬†something, what they mean is they’re committed to it. There’s kind of getting behind it, and evidential considerations don’t play much of a role in that. I mean you see that in¬†New¬†England here with sports fans. They will say that they believe that the¬†Red¬†Sox are the greatest team in the world, and that’s entirely unrelated to how well they’re doing in a particular season. It’s simply a gesture of¬†commitment. It’s like saying, ‚ÄúGo¬†Red¬†Sox.‚ÄĚ Similarly, my students in Intro to Philosophy, when we look at philosophers‚Äô criticisms of the purported proofs of God’s existence, and we see pretty plainly that those proofs just don’t hold up, students will absorb that.¬†They’ll understand the logic, and they’ll say, ‚ÄúBut I still believe.‚ÄĚ And they believe because they were raised that way. That’s the claim.

Sounds a lot like Briony’s research, like maybe for a moment they let go of that, but then they go back to it?

DLS: Yeah, because it’s the commitment that matters rather than the evidence that matters.

TL: Understanding belief,¬†and¬†particularly when we believe other people’s communication is a really cool thing to think about too. In my research I focused on what people do that make them believable, and it seems that what people do that makes them believable, is completely unrelated to whether they¬†actually should be believed or not. However, there is a whole¬†combination of behaviours that make people believable, and as it turns out these things are all interrelated. So if you are friendly, and you‚Äôre confident, and you‚Äôre engaged, and you’re looking the person in the eye, then pretty much almost everybody will believe you. And if you‚Äôre¬†not doing those things,¬†if you‚Äôre¬†coming off¬†as¬†nervous and sketchy and adding¬†a¬†lot of qualifications, then this can undercut your believability. I¬†find that fascinating,¬†at¬†just how powerful these things are.

It’s interesting, too, in the political environment. In a previous¬†Scholars’¬†Circle, the guests talked about the appearance of authenticity and the appearance of sincerity, and how much of a role that plays. And when we’re talking about¬†Donald Trump, who is in the fact-checking world, what they would call ‚Äúpants on fire‚Ä̬†most of the time,¬†yet he comes across as sincere and authentic. How do you make sense of that?

TL: I call it the believability quotient, and actually I have this checklist of eleven things. And I found, for example, that people who are both lying and telling the truth, or liars who are doing these things, even professional interrogators, will get it right only about sixteen percent of the time. However, when the people who are honest do the exact same thing, people are one hundred percent right about them.

I am not sure I followed that.

TL: So I am coming off as really believable and¬†I’m lying.¬†Even professional¬†interrogators will be wrong about me¬†eighty¬†percent of the time. However,¬†if¬†I’m actually honest in doing these things, then they will be right about me. And the interesting thing is, these show up cross-culturally. So, for example, I’m in Korea right now, and I show Koreans videotapes of¬†Americans high¬†up in these believability¬†quotients, they¬†believe them,¬†and low in it, and they don’t believe them.

Briony, what do you make of that?

BST: I think it sounds like¬†great¬†research. I¬†think that believability really does go hand and hand with deception and why people lie. In a way, it’s the flip side, what we believe and why¬†we¬†believe it.

TL: I¬†would look¬†to see¬†what’s going on in the brain scanner when people are watching these highly believable¬†people, or watching these¬†highly sketchy people.

Now when you’re talking¬†about¬†the high believability people who are actually lying would that fall into the pathological side?

TL: Not necessarily. I¬†think at least¬†in the way¬†I¬†would use the term. What¬†makes lying pathological is that¬†they’re lying when the truth would work just as well. So there’s no reason for lying, they’re just lying to lie. And that’s different than¬†I¬†think a¬†really effective liar,¬†a highly believable liar who’s doing it very strategically, or might be using it very strategically and very successfully.

BST: Just on that note, and¬†bringing it full circle back to¬†politics¬†and¬†the 2016¬†presidential campaign, when that is¬†paired¬†with¬†our¬†finding of even if people reduced their belief in the misinformation, they didn’t change their voting preferences.¬†It was actually a very effective strategy by the¬†Trump¬†campaign. I¬†mean,¬†who is to¬†say whether or not it was an¬†explicit strategy that was used. But if you are able to get all the benefits of this, like additional news coverage and a rousing rhetoric,¬†and you don’t have the negative consequences of being caught out and spreading misinformation,¬†then¬†maybe perhaps¬†it’s¬†a good way to go.

DLS: Yeah, well with respect to believability, I fully agree. I mean the trick to being a good liar, a skilled liar,¬†a competent¬†liar is to be believable¬†otherwise¬†there’s no point. So,¬†I¬†can do no better than to quote one of my favourite philosophers‚ÄĒMarx, not Karl, but Groucho,¬†who once said that sincerity is important and if you can fake that, you can fake anything.


This interview was originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview click here.

See Also:

How Does Propaganda Work in Democratic Societies? ūüĒä

Will Fake News Affect the New Zealand Election? ‚Ė∂

Are Hacking, Fake News, and Paid Trolls Destroying Democracy? ūüĒä