- Recently a politician was accused of pathological lying.
- Politicians say they are honest and have personality traits of honest people.
- Successful politicians are more apt to lie.
- Politics may both attract and create liars.
In recent days, congressman-elect George Santos has been accused of voluminous lying. He has been accused of lying about graduating college, working for prestigious Wall Street banks, and even being Jewish.
He claimed that his mother lost her life in the 9/11 attacks, only to later claim that she died in 2016. He has admitted to fudging the truth about some of these matters but remains evasive about the truth in many other claims. Is George Santos unusual among politicians? Are all politicians prolific liars who play loose with the truth?
Trump, Biden, Bush, and Obama were all accused of being liars, even pathological liars. A recent Gallup poll showed that politicians are viewed as one of the least honest professional groups. Is that widespread sentiment an accurate assessment?
When researchers ask politicians to report about their own honesty, they report much higher levels of honesty than ordinary citizens do. However, asking a politician about their own honesty may not be the best way to assess it.
In one study, we measured the personality traits that tend to be associated with honest versus dishonest people. It turns out that politicians are more likely than the average citizen to have the personality traits associated with honesty.
Interestingly though, a large study that examined the propensity to lie among politicians found that those politicians who are most willing to lie tend to be more successful in getting reelected. Thus, lying may be important for survival in the world of politics. People don’t lie without a reason. It is easier to tell the truth than to lie, so people only lie when they are incentivized to do so.
It may be that politicians, at least most of them, are honest by nature but simply find themselves in a field in which they are frequently incentivized to lie. Representing broad constituencies, it is challenging to be completely honest without upsetting some voters. Additionally, politicians work to hype their accomplishments and downplay or undermine the successes of their adversaries. It may be hard to do that without fudging the truth a bit.
Why Politicians Lie
I argue that people lie when 1) they see some benefit of lying, 2) they think the risks of lying are acceptable, and 3) they can morally justify their dishonesty. Dishonest politicians may regularly see the benefit of lying, feel like they can get away with lying, and see their lying as a necessary part of the job rather than a deep character flaw.
But what should we make of people like George Santos who seem to have a long history of flagrant dishonesty that precedes their introduction into the world of politics? There certainly are some successful pathological liars who gravitate toward fields in which their penchant for lying aligns with the demands of the occupation.
My books with Dr. Drew Curtis on pathological liars discuss how the most dishonest people around us sometimes rise to the top in fields like politics and sales. Perhaps politics is a field that both attracts big liars and quickly shapes ordinarily honest people into dishonest leaders.
Hart, C, and Curtis, C., (2023). Big Liars: What Psychological Science Tells Us About Lying and How You Can Avoid Being Duped. https://www.amazon.com/Big-Liars-Psychological-Science-LifeTools-ebook/…
Hart, C. (2022). Pathological Lying: Theory, Research, and Practice. https://www.amazon.com/Pathological-Lying-Theory-Research-Practice/dp/1…