Why politicians so often lie
Elections are here, birthing so much political activity to sufficiently eclipse other vital activities in the country; national security inclusive. Yet politicians don’t seem to know that the worsening security situation could but the elections on hold. They don’t want to hear that in elections they think they can win. So all manner of people are rushing for nomination forms and talking loud!
For some of these people, whose chances of winning any election are hopelessly slim, you wonder where they are really going. Yet, they are carrying on as if they have been assured by God they would win. It is not surprising because the average politician has been found by experts to be egomaniac – and that is one reason they lie so much.
Egomaniacs suffer from delusions of personal greatness that seek to hide deeper feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Everything is to, from, for and about them. We will treat this in more detail next week. Why people who cannot even get their party tickets believe they will be the next President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is baffling.
In Nigeria, as in other developing countries, it is commonplace for politicians lie as if it is a requisite skill. They lie in even matured democracies. Politicians lie, exaggerate, and distort facts.
A lot of this is already happening – promises impossible to fulfill, bare-face lies, falsification of records. And even some of those already in political offices don’t seem to have been weaned from this political epidemic. Politicians lie so fluently, you would mistake them for actors.
Unfortunately, when their lies are discovered, they show amazing unwillingness to admit that they lied. The media becomes the whipping boys, as the politicians resort to euphemisms: Politicians’ words were distorted, misrepresented, twisted, exaggerated, or taken out of context. Yet the plain truth is that politicians even lie about things substantive.
Making it practical
Let’s make this a bit practical with two experts. Dr Erik Bucy researches media and communication at Texas Tech University with an emphasis on cognitive and emotional processing of televised leader behaviors. And Dr Patrick Steward is a political scientist and certified Facial Action Coding System (FACS) coder at the University of Arkansas who studies facial expressions and emotional responses of followers to leaders.
These experts caution that rather than taking everything the politicians say – hook, line, and sinker-, efforts should be made to also examine their body language.
Erik says: “Political visuals carry a good deal of social information about a communicator’s intent, state of mind, and truthfulness. Once you know what to look for, it becomes relatively easy to determine whether someone is angry or evasive, or whether a smile is truly felt—or false and insincere. One visible indicator of expressed emotion is the visibility of teeth. It sounds odd, but bared lower teeth are reliably linked to displays of anger and threat. By contrast, visible upper teeth are typical of smiles and displays of happiness and reassurance. Coordinated muscle actions surrounding the mouth and eyes offer further confirmation of a felt or false expression.
And Patrick says: “I try to look at the face when the target of my analysis isn’t speaking because when they are responding to their environment, they can be caught off guard. More specifically, I try to look for quick and subtle facial displays, which might be termed “micro-expressions.” These displays are often controlled very quickly by the communicator once they slip out, but reveal their immediate appraisal of a situation.”
The President Putin Example
Erik had this to say about the non-verbal communication of President Putin, when he addressed the press on his intentions about Ukraine in March this year. Putin had sworn to the world that Russia was not involved in the crisis in Ukraine, but see how his body language betrayed him.
Erik: “Putin appears to feign contemplation at first and then becomes increasingly insistent, even aggressive, throughout the course of his comments. At first his gaze is averted and down, as if he is searching for an answer. Nonverbal cues like that are equated with evasion, or avoidance. Then he looks more directly at the journalists in attendance.
He’s trying to make a case for his position calmly, although his words about illegitimacy, foreign interference, and radical instigation (from a transcript of the press conference) are combative. In this sense his demeanor is deceptive, precisely because it doesn’t appear outwardly belligerent. His other nonverbal—tone of voice, head nodding, hand gestures to punctuate points—are all calculated to seem reasonable, as if this is the only course of action that could be taken.
All the reasons politicians lie
There are some general reasons why politicians, the world over, lie so much. They do without any quilt. But peculiar to Nigeria or other infant and growing democracies are high levels of impunity, the need to win at all cost, and the docility of the electorate and.
Most politicians are narcissists in nature. So they are arrogant, self-important, see themselves as special. They require excessive admiration and are exploitative. They tend to believe that they are always right and, even if they are not, they are too powerful to suffer the consequences.
The Nigerian politician
In most cases In Nigeria, the impunity of public officers is not challenged. Even when the media and civil society groups have flashed brazen cases of impunity, there is no consequence management in the end.
There have also been instances where issues of lying, impunity and even fraud, have been politicized, with some sections of the country rising up in support of kinsmen, who should be prosecuted.
And of course, severely impoverished people have resigned themselves to fate, worrying more about how they can feed than what politician do or fail to do in plush government houses. Their situation is so bad that crump dropped for them come as divine intervention.
The constellation of these factors gives political leaders the license to lie. Were they held accountable for every word, for every promise made, they would be more careful with their words and actions.
The False Truth
Unfortunately, it would seem that when a lie is told enough times, people will assume it is true. It is not a stretch to understand why people would believe something if they hear it enough. People expect that lies will be disproved and fade away. So if the lies continue to be heard, people assume, then they must be true.
One of the unintended consequences of the Internet is that information, true or not, lives on forever and it is likely to continue to be believed even in the face of contradictory evidence. Studies have shown, for example, that people are more likely to believe unsubstantiated rumors about a political candidate they oppose when read in emails and on blogs.
Generally, the lies are fueled by the desperation to win at all costs. Experts have observed that politicians justify their lies and distortions by using a sort of “gaming” analogy. In the same way that a football player will fall and roll over to pretend that there was a foul, the politician believes it’s right to lie or distort, because the ends (getting your detested opponent to lose) justifies the means.
Studies have also shown the following reasons: Politicians know their followers will believe them, even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Politicians and their adherents live in an echo chamber in which everyone watches the same news channel, listens to the same talk radio, reads the same newspapers and web sites, and hangs out with the same like-minded people. There exists an impermeable membrane that prevents conflicting information from entering. The content of the lies is also usually red meat for the politicians’ ravenous base who are only too happy to chew on it for days on end.
Many people don’t want to hear the truth, a fact which is exploited by political sycophants. Truth, as the saying goes, hurts and no one wants to hear things that threaten their existence, their beliefs, or that will make them uncomfortable. It is decidedly better for politicians to tell people what makes them feel comfortable. Few politicians want to be the purveyors of bad news, when they can get away with fairy tales with happy endings.
The following human weaknesses that tend to encourage lying by politicians have also been identified by experts such as Dr. Ronald Riggio.
The Trusting Bias: We tend to trust people too much. Our default psychological mechanism is to believe rather than disbelieve (unless we are in law enforcement, or other professions concerned with professional liars). That is why we are such easy targets for con artists, AND politicians.
Cognitive Laziness: When we hear a claim by a politician, we often don’t (and don’t want to – particularly if the politician is one we support) engage in the mental and physical effort to fact check. Together with the trusting bias, we figure that “he said it, so it must be true.”
Audacious Lying: In politics (and to some extent in social life), the more outlandish or audacious the lie, the more likely people are to believe it if the source is considered at least minimally credible. Even though politicians are on the bottom rungs of “trustworthy” professionals, when it comes to political facts and figures, we give them the benefit of the doubt, and figure, “that seems so crazy that he must be telling the truth,” and cognitive laziness ensures that we don’t check it out.
The opportunities for politicians to lie are as many as there are politicians, but integrity makes a great politician.