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When was the last time you told a lie? If you can’t remember, I’ll give you a clue. Chances are it was sometime today – based on the fact research shows the average person lies at least once a day.
The point of most lies or false claims seems reasonably straightforward: to deceive others (or oneself) into believing what’s false is true. But there is one puzzling (and often misunderstood) type of lie that doesn’t seem to follow this logic. This is what I call the “lousy lie”.
These are the types of lies or false truths that seem so obviously implausible that they don’t seem designed to deceive, but rather, to signal something else.
Such examples would include the Italian nationalist leader, Matteo Salvini’s, recent claim that the Chinese created COVID-19 in a lab – when there is scientific consensus that it moved from animals to humans.
Or the claims by Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, that Moscow has “reasons to assume” the recent Novichok nerve agent poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was done by Germans. Novichok was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s and is the same substance found in the 2018 poisoning of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
Then there is of course Donald Trump and his many number of false statements.
When academics have, in recent years, written about false claims, two opposing storylines emerge. On the one hand, there’s the suggestion that people are quite easily deceived - particularly those less educated or with extreme ideologies and convictions. On the other hand, certain academics – such as the French cognitive scientist, Hugo Mercier, in his book Not Born Yesterday – believe people are not as gullible as is usually assumed.
But even if we accept that most people aren’t very gullible, there’s still the issue of why there’s so much low-quality, easily detectable lying in the public sphere. And given that many cultures have social norms against lying, how then are these lies able to exist and flourish?
Power and status
For my recent book, Knowledge Resistance: How We Avoid Insight from Others, I interviewed numerous social, economic and evolutionary academics in the UK who work on knowledge-based conflicts. I found that some lying - by being so obviously false - is used primarily as a way of bonding and forming loyalty within groups. And in the same way, it can also be used to gain or signal distance from another group. In this sense, then, these false claims act as a display of power – of not having to submit to truth and facts like the rest of us.
Lousy lying can also be used to communicate social status and make the person appear highly knowledgeable. One study of climate change sceptics, for example, found that the most scientifically literate people in the group were most likely to strongly endorse climate scepticism. The study also found that, for these “scientific sceptics”, this strong loyalty with their community, through their seemingly sophisticated reasoning, led to them having a high reputation and liking among their peers. Being liked and respected is something humans have evolved genetically to prioritise.
This gradual transformation leads to “obvious lies” becoming an uncertainty - echoing the old adage “there’s no smoke without fire”. On the internet in particular, no lie is lousy enough that it won’t be picked up by someone and shared by any number of people.
Studies also show that false claims have a higher chance of being spread compared to mainstream beliefs. And that for people sharing such untruths, it can lead to a tighter social bond with others who also believe the false claim. This is most likely because it requires blind commitment and loyalty to truly believe what others perceive as a lie. And with the speed with which things can spread online, such views can become normalised very quickly.
For all these reasons, it would be misguided to treat lousy lying as a “cognitive failure”, as it clearly serves several social functions. To deal with this type of lying, then, fact checking would ideally be combined with efforts to have prominently respected figures from the outsider groups that help perpetuate lousy lies to educate and myth bust false claims. Though, of course, this wouldn’t be easy.
This is important given that, as Twitter and Facebook have intensified their fact checking, millions of social media users have moved to alternative platforms – like Newsmax, Parler and Rumble. And in these online spaces the lies of public leaders can flow freely and disappear into acceptance.