Whoppers of Mass Destruction

I cannot tell a lie. Or can I?

| Mon Jun. 23, 2003 2:00 AM EDT

Every administration lies, and while its understandable to want the absolute truth from our elected officials, it's self-defeating to expect it. Politicians are like children's book authors: neither can practice their craft without certain flights of fancy. But some political lies are so egregious, so outlandish, you feel them in your bones. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says, "I don't believe anyone that I know in the administration ever said that Iraq had nuclear weapons," it astounds the senses on a cellular level.

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The question is, what can be done? To get my answer, I consulted with a variety of experts about the art of deception. Most refused to comment directly on the current administration (though quite a few were happy to talk about former President Clinton, Gary Condit, and OJ), which left me to decode abstract, parallel scenarios about extramarital affairs, petty theft, and forbidden cookies. And even though I felt duty bound to talk to a priest, none of the Catholic organizations I contacted returned my calls, which I took as the honest desire to avoid talking about moral and ethical issues altogether.

The saddest bit of news about lying is its prevalence. Bella DePaulo, visiting professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara, recently conducted a study where her research subjects kept a detailed journal of their lying. Every participant said they lied at least once a day, while some lied as often as fifty times a week. "We concluded that lying is a fact of everyday life," says DePaulo. "It is not an extraordinary event." Compounding this problem is a psychological phenomenon called the "self-serving attribution," which means the lies you are told are always more heinous than the lies you tell. "People who described lies told to them really laid it on thick," says DePaulo. "But people describing the lies they told always did it in a way that made them look better." Which means what seems like hypocrisy (say, accusing Saddam of lying about having biological weapons by telling lies about him having biological weapons) is actually a nifty cognitive trick to protect us from our own mendacity.

Corporate accounting scandals, inflated intelligence reports, and trouble at the New York Times make it seem as if we're living in particularly fraudulent times, but the world's oldest written texts concern themselves with lying. A passage in the Indian Vedas says a liar will have a discolored face and "rubs the great toe along the ground and shivers." (Alas, White House lecterns tend to obscure the big toe.) "In Rabbinic laws a person who bears false witness in court is liable for the punishment they're trying to get the victim in trouble for," says Rabbi Adam Chalom of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington, Michigan. "So the penalty for lying in a capital murder case would be execution." But applying Hammurabi-style justice to politicians is impractical. If the president promises that no child will be left behind by his educational reforms and then reneges on his commitment to fund those reforms, we cannot expect to take away everything he learned at Yale.

Perhaps, then, the answer lies in becoming better at detecting lies. But it turns out that as a species we're terrible at it. "It's very hard to tell when people are lying," says Charles Bond, a psychology professor at Texas Christian University. For his research into what he calls "international deception," Bond videotaped Americans, Jordanians, and illiterate Indian farmers as some lied and others told the truth. When Bond showed each group the others' tapes, the subjects picked up on who was lying a little better than fifty percent of the time. Surprisingly, however, and despite the language barrier, they were all in complete agreement on who was lying -- even when they were wrong. "There must be some kind of pan-cultural cues that people use to judge when people are lying," says Bond.

As Bond's research indicates, however, such cues are misleading. "We look for the wrong symptoms," says Stan B. Walters, a police interrogation consultant and author who goes by "the Lie Guy." "We say: 'If he looks away, he's lying; if he fidgets, he's lying; if he says a lot of ums and ahs, he's lying,'" he says. "These are unreliable cues," especially with skilled practitioners of spin. Walter teaches investigators to analyze a combination of verbal and physical cues, taking language patterns and personality type into account. But this, too, is of little use when it comes to public figures, because our preconceptions of them complicate our ability to read them. "We believe they're going to lie so even when they aren't we mislabel them," says Walters. "Or we believe they aren't going to lie so when they do we're self-blinded."

Public figures have two advantages the everyday liar doesn't: a career's worth of experience and control of the conversation. "The weapons of mass destruction was only one element," says Walters. "There was also human rights. With a political situation, we can refocus people's attention away from the [main] issue, and make us look at a weaker issue. It's like when a guy wallpapers his house. He thinks he's done a pretty good job. Then someone comes in and looks real close and they see that the seams don't quite match up. The guy would rather look at the whole project."

Such diversionary tactics, says Walters, "avert people's attention from the truth towards something that would support our agenda. It's kind of like a bargaining behavior. In bargaining behavior, I don't deny the crime, but I say things like, I would never do anything wrong because I'm a good Christian, or I'm a good employee. They haven't denied the issue. With politicians we're at a disadvantage because we can't follow up with questions for statements that bother us." Indeed, President Bush's inaccessibility is part of what makes it easier for him to play with the truth. Perhaps what needs to change is the overall relationship between the administration and the general public -- like a parent giving a child a time out, we need to start fresh.

Or perhaps we need to start earlier. "You have to make it easy for kids to tell the truth," says parenting expert Adele Faber, co-author of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Faber notes that every lie represents either a wish or a fear, and the more accepting you are the safer kids will be in telling the truth. "Let's say your kid comes home and says, 'I hit a home run!'" says Faber. "You say, 'Boy, I bet that made you happy.' Then a second later the kid says, 'I didn't really hit a home run. I struck out.' At which point you say, 'But you wish you hit a home run.' Which is your way of telling them 'I'm with you.'" Perhaps, as citizens, we have been sending the wrong message to Washington. Rather than being critical of the president we need to be supportive. We need to say, We know you exaggerated about the weapons of mass destruction. It's okay. Just tell us the truth and we promise we won't get mad.

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