What Makes People Vulnerable to Lies?

This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in mid-December, 2022.


I’ve discovered in recent years that the truth is a good deal less powerful than I’ve thought.

I grew up with an image of the world that was like a courtroom, or like a scientific field, or a philosophical debate, where a process had been set up with the purpose of establishing what’s true and what’s not. And an image of society where such truth moved things forward in good ways—whether it be a valid verdict, or a new scientific discovery, or sound thinking defeating less-sound thinking.

(That’s why my slogan in my campaign for Congress was “Truth. For a change.”)

I understood that tyranny can defeat the truth. I knew that the Soviet newspaper Pravda (meaning “Truth” in Russian) told lies to the people, and that many of the people would believe the lies.

But I thought that, in a society where speech and the press are free, the truth would compete with what’s false (including lies) and prevail.

It has been painful to discover how often, in America over the past several decades, lies can defeat the truth. Observing how many people can believe the unbelievable, despite having unfettered access to reliable information, I’ve wondered: What factors can generate such credulity?

Perhaps it starts in the family.

Families differ in countless ways, and integrity with respect to the truth is one of them. Some families actually enforce certain lies—the children must at least pretend to believe them. For example, sometimes there’s some “elephant in the room” – like an abusive and/or alcoholic parent – that no one is allowed to mention, or even notice. (Or it might be some form of hypocrisy no one is allowed to notice.) A mental habit gets established where the growing child learns to ignore the truth while treating the lie with respect.

What’s true in a family can also operate in the wider culture in which such families operate. Every culture and every nation tends to glorify itself beyond what truth would justify. (There’s a reason why Jesus warns against focusing on the “mote” in one’s neighbor’s eye, while ignoring the “beam” in one’s own.) But some falsify their history more than others.

An example relevant to this “believing the unbelievable” in our times is the highly consequential and blatant falsification, in the culture of the former Confederacy, regarding the centrality of slavery in motivating the South to fight the Civil War. The culture the region developed — that actively punished teachers who taught what historians now recognize as the truth – fosters a wider vulnerability to believing any other lies that the ruling powers might tell.

Which brings in another important dimension of the answer: the relationship of the individual, and of the culture made up of such individuals, to authority.

It’s readily apparent that some political forces place a higher value than others on such virtues as loyalty, obedience, staying in line, and adherence to “right belief.” Or, rather, on such qualities as those, which are virtues when the authority is honest, trustworthy, and beneficent. But those same qualities – which involve surrendering some autonomy to serve an authority – make people vulnerable to an authority who is malignant and deceptive.

So people who proudly sport a bumpersticker that reads, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” are showing not only their fidelity to their faith, they are also likely demonstrating that any other authority that wins their trust can count on their giving credence to whatever he declares to be true. (Like that an election was stolen, even if superabundant evidence shows that to be a lie.)

When it comes to the vulnerability to believe the unbelievable, it seems that there’s an intersection between those two aforementioned factors: i.e. how the culture deals with matters of “truth,” and how those within that culture relate to authority.

People are more vulnerable to the Lie the greater within their culture is the force of conformity.

Most people don’t like to be at odds with the community of people among whom they live. But in some subcultures, the pressures to conform – and the price of being different – are higher than in others.

Cultures get formed by a variety of factors. One of those factors is how power gets exercised from the top, particularly in cultures in which there are vast inequalities of power between the ruling elites and the general population. The more dominant the elite, the more it can shape the culture so that deviance from the group’s belief system is so dangerous – ostracism, or worse – that people learn to conform to “right belief” automatically.

Over the course of generations, such ruling powers can shape a culture so that, when word comes down from above, the population at large has been trained to adopt that “word” as the truth, and the individuals have been trained to conform to what those around them are declaring to be the truth.

In such ways, people who are intelligent in other matters can be taught to turn off their ability to think critically about statements in certain domains – i.e. those areas that the authorities regard as crucial to their interests, and the surrounding community therefore adopts as matters of required belief – making them vulnerable to believing the unbelievable.

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