Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist
who has spent years studying dishonesty, used puzzles to explore this tendency in more than 40,000 people. His findings? When people had a chance to cheat and then lie about it, more than 70% took the chance and lied.
Despite this, his research shows that most of us believe we are honest.
In a recent interview
, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, "I have never lied. And I don't intend (to)" and went on to emphasize the importance of integrity.
But he clearly has -- on behalf of his boss. He needs to stop. The American people deserve better.
Spicer's most consequential nonsense recently was repeating as true the claim of a talking head on Fox News that British intelligence spied on Donald Trump at the behest of former President Barack Obama. This infuriated a key American ally, and for what? On Monday, FBI Director James Comey refuted the claim at a House Intelligence Committee hearing.
That same day, Spicer said in a press briefing that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort played a "limited role (in the campaign) for a very limited amount of time," a demonstrably false claim. ("He was the chairman of the campaign!" a reporter shot back.)
Manafort, by the way
, resigned shortly after a New York Times report that he'd received $12.7 million in secret cash payments earmarked for him from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
If your 12-year-old bent and distorted truth like this to keep you from being angry with him or withholding something he wanted, what would you call it?
But Spicer has repeatedly promulgated flat-out nonsense for the President -- repeatedly told Americans things that are untrue.
Parroting Trump, he blatantly, wildly inflated the crowd size at the inauguration
. He presented a Pew study as evidence of Trump's claim that millions of people voted illegally (there is no such study)
. He said the executive order the President signed that banned people from some predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States was not a ban -- though Trump himself has called it one
. There are, unfortunately, many more examples, both from the press secretary and other members of the administration.
I suspect Ariely would not be surprised about any of this. According to him, dishonesty is almost always caused by one thing -- a conflict of interest.
Spicer is working for a volatile, irrational, and vindictive President. To keep his job, he has to say things that Trump wants him to say, even if they are lies.
What's more, research shows
the more times that you repeat a statement, even if you know it's not true, the more you'll believe it!
I'm not explaining this to defend Spicer. When you understand why someone does something, you have much more power to change it. Understanding the underpinnings of deception is a tool. All of this lying is not going to stop unless enough Americans are appalled by this and make the truth matter more.
Ariely's research shows that we are incredibly good at deceiving ourselves. We tell ourselves stories to make ourselves feel like honest people, even though we are not. One of the easiest justifications, according to research? That our lies are meant to protect someone else -- for example, a president.
So how do you stop a liar?
There's only one way: You call out the lie and remind the liar of his or her own moral fiber. In fact, Ariely found that merely showing people a copy of an honor code or the Ten Commandments all but eliminates lies.
When you help people remember their moral code, it touches something innate inside them. So, we should deal with Spicer in the same way you deal with a 12-year-old. We need to point out the lies and remind him of his desire to act with integrity.
A book Ariely has written about dishonesty ends with some sobering research: In a corporation, dishonestly can spread like an infection. Lies breed more lies as we begin inviting our peers to join in on the dishonesty so we can feel better about our own actions. If you need more proof for how dishonesty can become cultural, look no further than the need for federal legislation to protect whistleblowers who come forward to call out the liars and criminals in their organizations.
The infection is spreading throughout this administration. How many of us have come to expect Spicer -- and Attorney General Jeff Sessions
and Kellyanne Conway to lie to us
. The scary thing is they will continue to do so. And when the press blows the whistle, they'll look you in the face and tell you they aren't lying. They'll brush you aside with "alternate facts," assert you are "fake news" and suggest something ridiculous -- like perhaps it's your microwave
or British intelligence that's spying on you.
I'm here to tell you that no, you're not going crazy. You're dealing with liars:
1. Their interests conflict with yours.
2. They've repeated these lies (and omissions) so many times they now believe they are true.
3. They justify the lying because they are doing it to protect someone else: Trump.
That is the truth about lying. And that's not going to change until you, as citizens, blow the whistle early and often and demand it change.