U.S. Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is doing his part to keep one segment of the population employed: Fact-checkers are working in overdrive.
In recent weeks, Ryan has been repeatedly called out for bending the truth. He was accused of misleading his audience during his Republican National Convention speech. He was busted for fibbing about how fast he ran a marathon, claiming he’d completed the race more than an hour faster than his actual time. And last week, the press dug up a 2009 newspaper article in which it was suggested he had climbed close to 40 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot (4,300-metre) or higher peaks, known as the “Fourteeners.”
Much was made about the unlikelihood he could accomplish such a feat, since it would have required devoting entire summers to mountaineering, and he didn’t even live in Colorado. A campaign official later clarified Ryan had climbed several of the peaks nearly 40 times, not 40 different peaks.
“Lyin’ Ryan” may be a gift to the Democrats (who, in Bill Clinton, had their own sterling example), but as the presidential race heats up, more whoppers are almost certain to be told by politicians of all stripes.
Even though we like to vilify liars, we all tell lies . Little white lies form an essential layer of our social veneer. But certain situations make some of us bigger liars than others.
In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, researcher Shaul Shalvi of the University of Amsterdam suggests people are more inclined to lie when they are faced with temptation under time pressure.
“The instinct is not to lie per se, it’s to serve your self-interest,” Dr. Shalvi, an assistant professor of psychology, said. He explained that once we have time to consider societal expectations and our own morals, we usually tell the truth. In other words, your spouses, children and co-workers will be more honest with you if you avoid pressuring them. (Your politician, of course, is never let off the hook.)
Our brain structure may also indicate how often we lie. A 2005 study by researchers at the University of Southern California found that pathological liars, those who lie compulsively without remorse, have significantly more white matter (nerve fibres, or axons, which act as wiring), and less grey matter (concentrations of neuron cell bodies responsible for processing information) in the prefrontal cortex of the brain than the rest of us.
The white matter is thought to allow liars to excel at deception, while grey matter puts on the moral brakes, keeping lying in check.
On the other end of the spectrum, children with autism, who have difficulty lying, have the opposite brain makeup: They have less white matter than individuals who lie more easily, previous research has shown.
Most of us lie for a reason. We tell “altruistic” lies, such as false compliments to make others feel good, or “selfish” lies, intended to help us achieve some personal gain, says Stephen Porter, a forensic psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan.
But pathological liars, he explains, fib frequently with no obvious motivation. They feel no embarrassment when they are caught out, and they are fully aware that their stories are false. “They simply are compelled to move on to telling the next tall tale,” Dr. Porter says. What causes pathological lying is still a mystery, but it is a symptom of conditions like factitious disorder, when people fake illnesses, or psychopathy, when people lack conscience and empathy.
Certain types of criminals, such as hustlers and fraudsters, lie persistently to steal money or gain advantage. But their lying is typically motivated by greed, and is not necessarily pathological, he says.
Politicians may appear to be adept at lying; they have to think on their feet while using the powers of spin and persuasion to massage the truth. But contrary to the old canard that they are not to be trusted, “politicians as a group probably don’t tell more direct lies than anyone else,” Dr. Porter says.
“However,” he added, “the best politicians are able to gain credibility through their demeanour, language and even physical appearance, such that even when using deception they seem highly trustworthy.”
So what’s the best way to deal with habitual liars? Dr. Porter says calling them out on their lies doesn’t help. “They simply maintain the false story even in the face of overwhelming evidence, or continue to lie about something else,” he says. “The only way to deal with such an individual is to avoid them and take their words in general with a grain of salt.”
Lies and more lies
The for-no-good-reason liar
No one would have scoffed at Paul Ryan’s 4:01 marathon time, yet the vice-presidential candidate told a radio interviewer his personal best time was under three hours. He was quickly busted by Runner’s World. (Some wag built a Paul Ryan Time Calculator online to convert average marathon time to something more impressive.) The rest of us wondered why he bothered spinning such a trivial fib.
The attention-seeking liar
Ashley Kirilow outraged Canadians when she admitted to swindling thousands of dollars from sympathetic donors by faking cancer. It turns out the Burlington, Ont., resident was indeed ill, just not with cancer. The judge who handed her a 15-month conditional sentence in 2011 also ordered her to seek counselling and take medication for anxiety and depression.
The journalist liar
Before Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, there was Janet Cooke. The Washington Post reporter won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a heart-wrenching feature titled Jimmy’s World, about a drug-addicted eight-year-old boy. The trouble was she made it up; Jimmy did not exist.
The wishful-thinking fudger
After a dramatic landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, then-U.S. President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq in 2003, with a banner “Mission Accomplished” flapping nearby. “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” he proclaimed. While he did not claim victory of the war itself, the “mission accomplished” slogan would haunt him for years as thousands of Americans subsequently died in combat.
The embarrassingly frank non-liar
Prince Philip should learn how to tell the little white lie. The Duke of Edinburgh is notorious for politically incorrect gaffes. He reportedly once told a president of Nigeria, dressed in traditional robes: “You look like you’re ready for bed.” And he remarked to a Scottish driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them to pass the test?” You would think the Queen’s husband would know better.