What Makes People Vulnerable to Lies

This piece appeared as a newspaper op/ed in mid-September, 2015.


Human intelligence is one of the marvels of the known universe, but it has its vulnerabilities—such as that people can be taught to turn off their intelligence and made to believe obvious lies.

No need here to point out the various important lies that – despite mountains of publicly available evidence that proves them false – are believed by tens of millions of Americans. Rather, in view of how dangerously Lies have been able to defeat the Truth, I’ve been asking the general question: What makes intelligent people vulnerable to believing the unbelievable?

Here are some parts of an answer:

** The Dynamics of the Family

Families differ in how they deal with power, and with the Truth. In families where there are both very large disparities of power between parents and children, and realities the powerful don’t want acknowledged, children can be compelled to deny what’s in front of their eyes. For example, they might be compelled to pretend – or not even to know – that a parent is an alcoholic, or that abuse is being meted out in the guise of love or moral instruction.

The pattern laid down in a child growing up in such a family can be exploited by some future Voice of Authority to get them to do likewise with that Authority’s lies—i.e. to be blind to what’s obvious, and to believe what all evidence declares to be false.

** Cultural pattern

Some cultures invest more than others in distorting the reality in what they teach their young. One relevant example can be found in the American South, where teachers were legally compelled for generations to teach falsehoods about the Civil War.

Prior to the Civil War, the powerful manipulated average Southerners into believing that whenever slavery was criticized it was “Southern Honor” – and not just the power and wealth of the big slaveowners — that was at stake.

Then, immediately after the Civil War, the leaders of the South denied that slavery was their cause, though their words to the contrary — at the time they seceded just a few years before — were still ringing in the ears of those who’d fought. That falsehood got entrenched as dogma in the region, how they’d defended a noble “Lost Cause” of “honor” and “states’ rights.”

A repetition of that pattern — powerful authorities selling lies to get people to act against their own interest — can be seen nowadays. It’s not a coincidence that the region of the Confederacy has been the main reservoir of support for the political force practicing the Politics of the Lie in our times.

The culture instills a vulnerability to believing lies told them by a political force in order to misdirect their rage toward various others, while it is the political force they support that is making their lives harder.

(A political force whose one legislative goal in 2017 was to pass a tax cut that transferred $2 trillion from average Americans to the very richest individuals and corporations, at a time when our nation’s inequalities of wealth were already dangerously extreme.)

The Voice of Authority

It’s not as though those who are vulnerable to believing important lies believe whatever anyone tells them. It is particular authorities that are given unquestioning receptiveness.

After the authority of the parent, certain secular powers (religious or political) might be granted status enabling them to dictate belief. And, at certain historical moments, this willingness to believe “the Voice of Authority” can attach itself to a particular leader.

The ability of some leaders to command their followers has been captured in the concept of a “cult of personality.” Certain kinds of people are able to get their followers to attend only to their voice. (Like what Mao was able to do in unleashing the Cultural Revolution; what Hitler was able to do in getting his countrymen to greet each other with a “Heil Hitler” whenever they met; what Jones did getting his people to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid.)

We can see how the Voice of Authority can render evidence and logic irrelevant when people believe the unbelievable from a leader whose “false and misleading statements” were tallied in the tens of thousand over just the four years he was President!

Trance State?

The charismatic power of such leaders brings to mind a hypnotic state:

  • someone hypnotized can develop a burn because they’ve been told falsely the coin placed on their skin is red hot;
  • and hypnotic suggestion can make them fail to see a person standing right in front of them.

It appears that in situations akin to cults, something resembling a trance state enables the charismatic leader to sell obvious falsehoods to those “under their spell.”

The idea of the “spell” conveys that something “spiritual” or “magical” is going on between Authority and follower. When the leader is benign and constructive, having people “under his spell” can enable a leader to inspire people to do great things. But when the leader is destructive, people under the “spell” can be seduced into supporting things dark and destructive.

(And we can infer that we are seeing something dark and destructive if the Lie plays a major role in how Authority relates to the people who give it their power.)

Evil power uses. Good power serves.

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