The psychology of (Brexit) lies and why we fall for them
PUBLISHED: 13:21 31 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:21 31 July 2017
Lies, damn lies and Brexit: How fabrication - whatever the consequences - has become a viable political weapon and what the fallout might be
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Do you trust me? I might look like a pleasant enough person in my byline picture, but can you actually believe what I write? And if you did find something questionable in my article, where would you check it? The internet is a trillion different voices all speaking and shrieking at the same time. How are you meant to know what’s correct, what’s fake?
Lying is a hot topic right now, and in the Brexit arena the most recent example comes from the former head of UKIP. In his guise as LBC radio host, Nigel Farage tweeted a picture of himself holding a snippet from Article 50 to prove that Britain has no legal obligations to pay the European Union any more money after 2020. He said “In Article 50, it makes it clear, ‘the rights and obligations deriving from the treaties would therefore extinguish’. So it’s perfectly clear, the Lisbon Treaty makes it very clear there are no future obligations.”
Almost immediately he was called a liar as people pointed out that the passage in question is not actually a part of Article 50, but comes from a briefing guide to the Article (In addition to that author Philip Pullman pointed out “extinguish is a transitive verb, you bollock-faced foghorn of ignorance’ to the delight of the Twitter crowd).
But, as is the way with political lies these days, nobody retracted the statement, and Farage’s supporters attacked any pressure for him to do so. Unveiling it as an untruth changed nothing.
In previous decades, politicians might evade or spin to their advantage - of course they did. But they tended to stay away from bold statements that could easily be disproved. What has changed about how we view lies and those who are caught out using them, and what is that doing to our political opinions today?
One of the most popular TED talks is on lying, or rather how to spot liars. “Certified fraud examiner” Pamela Meyer claims that lying is dead common; on average, we are lied to 10 to 200 times a day. Our first defence against being taken in by any of these untruths, says Meyer, is to know what we are hungry to hear and to guard against it.
So, using the Brexit referendum as an example, many of those who were convinced to vote to leave EU did so because they want to believe that £350 million would be taken from our payments to that blood-sucking “European” bureaucracy, and returned to feed our own “British” NHS.They were also told that their vote would enable them to “Take Back Control” —- apparently a slogan introduced to the campaign by hypnotist and self-help author Paul McKenna, who uses such techniques when hypnotising clients and in his best-selling books such I Can Make You Thin or I Can Make You Rich. People lapped up the sales pitches.
As Helen Lewis wrote in The New Statesman “The first few days after the referendum felt like an extended period of gaslighting – being told that things you could distinctly remember happening had not, in fact, happened. How could anyone think that the Leave campaign had promised an extra £350m for the NHS? The money was “an extrapolation . . . never total”, said Iain Duncan Smith on the BBC. It was merely part of a “series of possibilities of what you could do”. My eyes flicked from his pious face to Twitter, where someone had posted a picture of him standing next to the campaign bus. Its slogan read: “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.” Then I looked at the pinned Tweet for the chief executive of Vote Leave, Matthew Elliott, which reads: “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week.” These people promised us a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a Shetland pony.”
But you really need to look at the US though to see the modern-day version of bald-faced lying in its boldest, brightest colours. Journalists and Clinton-supporters believed that Donald Trump wouldn’t even make it to the final round, his porkie pies were so outrageous. But there were several critical things they didn’t take into account, and they changed everything.
Firstly, the nature of the man. For the decades that he had been building his property developer brand, Trump had always lied. As Susan Mulcahy who worked on two New York tabloids during the time that Trump as building up his “The Donald” persona wrote on Politico.com “Trump wanted attention, but he could not control his pathological lying. Which made him, as story subjects go, a lot of work. Every statement he uttered required more than the usual amount of fact-checking. If Trump said, “Good morning,” you could be pretty sure it was five o’clock in the afternoon. … My Trump items came from all over the place—never Trump himself—and when I called to check on something, he usually lied to me directly. Denying facts was almost a sport for Trump.”
According to a recent study by experimental psychologist at UCL Tali Sharot and others at University College London, we become desensitised to lying as we continue to do it. “When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie. However, this response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it falls the bigger our lies become. This may lead to a ‘slippery slope’ where small acts of dishonesty escalate into more significant lies.” The amygdala are two almond-shaped nerve bundles embedded deep in the brain which are linked to fear, anxiety and social phobias. They also play a role in controlling aggression and studies have shown that many psychopaths, who lack empathy and are often accomplished liars, have unusually small amygdalas.
Dr Neil Garrett, the lead author of the study, who is also from UCL, said it was likely that the findings reflected a blunted emotional response to lying. “This is in line with suggestions that our amygdala signals aversion to acts that we consider wrong or immoral. We only tested dishonesty in this experiment, but the same principle may also apply to escalations in other actions such as risk taking or violent behaviour.” It’s clear enough though that Trump does not see lying as any kind of hurdle to public office and if he ever did, his repeated behaviour has long ago stopped his amygdala making him feel uncomfortable about it.
Another factor is that many viewed Trump as a guardian of the people, not a crazy narcissist with no political experience or intelligence. According to the Confirmation bias, which we all have to some the extent, people tend to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. So if a politician is critical of the current regime, then those who also feel that way will quite naturally support that person. In the UK the Leave campaign pushed hard on people’s anti-red-tape feelings, but also - dishonestly - conflated all types of feelings about “foreigners” - from long-standing neighbours to illegal immigrants to aylum-seekers, including many who would in fact not be affected by leaving the EU.
In the US, Hillary Clinton’s campaign made a critical error that boosted Trump’s standing, when she described his supporters as “the deplorables”: “You can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,” said Hillary Clinton during a September campaign event. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it.”
In a country where “the middle” was already feeling forgotten, even punished, by the government and economic forces, to describe them in such grandly negative terms is to open the gate to those who set out to woo them. The one thing they had was their vote, and they weren’t going to give it to someone who had so little interest in their lives.
In a recent New Yorker article Colorado-resident journalist Peter Hessler set out to find how the inhabitants of the small city of Grand Junction felt about the man they voted for eight months earlier. He painted a picture of people who were decent and thoughtful, not the racist, uneducated cartoon figures that we’ve so often read about as making up the Trump camp. “Everybody I met in Grand Junction seemed more complex, more interesting and more decent than the man who inspires them.”
In this community he found huge cynicism about the media, and this was another strong factor in Trump’s appeal. When Trump had visited the city during the campaign, the press pack — literally corralled into a pen at the pack of an airport hangar— were repeatedly picked on by Trump in his speech: “There’s voter fraud also with the media, because they so poison the minds of the people by writing false stories,,, they’re lying, they’re cheating, they’re stealing.! They’re doing everything, these people right back there” Trump said, pointing at the press pen. As a local journalist reported, all around her people screamed at the journalists “Lock them up! Hang them all! Electric chair!”
We who don’t recoil from the appeal of Trump also don’t feel the disenfranchisement of such folk. They want him to get things done, to bring back jobs, to make America strong again, but they also like the way he takes on the press. As one woman who voted for Trump told Hessler, “For those of us who believe that the media has been corrupt for a lot of years, it’s a way of poking at the jellyfish. Just to make them mad.”
When major news organisations take Trump to task over all the mis-information he spreads, it does not cause most people to pause in their support of “their man”. This is because they don’t trust the media which they see as having a “liberal bias”. Historian Thomas Frank, writing in The Guardian believed it was more than just Trump supporters; the mass of people no longer trust the media. “It happens because so many of them are part of the same class – an exalted and privileged class. They are professionals and they believe in the things that so many other professional groups believe in: consensus, “realism”, credentialing, the wisdom of their fellow professionals and (of course) the stupidity of the laity.
“This is the key to understanding many of their biases – and also for understanding why they are so utterly oblivious to how they appear to the rest of America.” As he points out these are the people who did not foresee some of the biggest stories of the past 20 years, from the dot.com bubble, to the financial crisis. The people most affected by plummeting living standards feel let down, and uninformed about the reality.
And things are not so different here. Why does Katie Hopkins “get away’ with statements that are then proved to be untrue? She sets herself up as a non-bullshit truth-teller, who has the balls to say the unsayable. By making the lies and exaggerations ever-bigger she has risen from being a minor TV reality show participant to having a place in the pantheon of spokespeople for “the people”. And part of that success was afforded by the horror with which so much of the press met her rise. If she appalled the “establishment” she must be onto something true, no matter how untrue her statements turned out to be.
To prove her wrong we might turn to experts, but then we all know how little they can be trusted. Even more recently we’ve seen the same pattern concerning the Grenfell Tower tragedy, with scepticism immediately spread by social media. There is a lot of good in spreading news, marshalling support and so on , but there is also the sense that decent, fact-finding journalism is harder and harder to do, and be believed.
I asked a therapist from the welldoing.org site, Judith Chamberlain, what motivates people to believe lies, using her clients as a test-bed. “It’s usually about a relationship and they continue to believe that their relationship is worth saving. The person being lied to is, rather conversely, the one who feels the shame of the person they are being lied to by. People don’t want to tell family or friends because they are embarrassed at being duped, and they feel that they can’t have got it wrong because it will reveal some flaw in them.
“I’m not saying that they’re all narcississts, but the person who is lying to them is somehow dominating them, making them believe they are still the stronger person in the relationship. They go along with it, for the children, the family or themselves. But, given time working with me, they rebuild a stronger ego and are far more able to confidently deal with the person undermining them. And then they don’t need to believe the lies any more.”
People often say that post-infidelity, couples’ relationships are stronger (if they survive). Does this translate to present-day politics? Or, in a mass situation, is the power balance harder to shift, particularly if the believers feel they are being patronised and scorned for their beliefs, and therefore won’t budge from them or they’d be thought stupid and flawed?
In Hannah Arendt’s classic book The Origins of Totalitarianism written in 1951, she posited this theory: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true... The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
It looks like we’re going to have to live with the lies for a while longer, because just proving them wrong isn’t making a difference any more.
• Louise Chunn runs find a therapist platform welldoing.org. She is former editor of Psychologies magazine
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