Are They Pathological Liars? Narcissists? Psychopaths? “Masterful Manipulators”?
Trump Spokesman’s Lecture on Media Accuracy Is Peppered With Lies
Nearly all American politicians lie, but few as blatantly as those affiliated with the present administration. How do they do it? Are they lacking a conscience? Do they believe their own lies? Do they start with small falsehoods, stretch the truth, reinterpret events, and finally graduate to verifiably false statements?
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” Spicer said, contradicting all available data.
Crowds on the National Mall just before Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 (left) and Barack Obama’s in 2009.
Here are three major points from an astute analysis of why the first press conference of the Trump administration was such a bizarre sham:
1. Establishing a norm with the press: they will be told things that are obviously wrong and they will have no opportunity to ask questions. ...
2. Increasing the separation between Trump's base (1/3 of the population) from everybody else (the remaining 2/3). ...
3. Creating a sense of uncertainty about whether facts are knowable, among a certain chunk of the population... ...
I recommend you read the entire statement, it's very insightful.
How Do People Reach the State of Shameless Lying?
Is there a “slippery slope”? The notorious academic fraudster Diederik Stapel describes his descent from respectable social psychologist to data fabricator:
After years of balancing on the outer limits, the grey became darker and darker until it was black, and I fell off the edge into the abyss. I’d been having trouble with my experiments for some time. Even with my various “grey” methods for “improving” the data, I wasn’t able to get the results the way I wanted them. I couldn’t resist the temptation to go a step further. I wanted it so badly. I wanted to belong, to be part of the action, to score.
. . .
I opened the file with the data that I had entered and changed an unexpected 2 into a 4; then, a little further along, I changed a 3 into a 5. It didn’t feel right. I looked around me nervously. The data danced in front of my eyes.
. . .
No. I clicked on “Undo Typing.” And again. I felt very alone. I didn’t want this. I’d worked so hard. I’d done everything I could and it just hadn’t quite worked out the way I’d expected. It just wasn’t quite how everyone could see that it logically had to be. I looked at the door of my office. It was still closed. I looked out the window. It was dark outside. “Redo Typing.”
Most of us never reach the abyss of Diederik Stapel or Sean Spicer. Or the average politician:
"People want their politicians to lie to them. The reason that people want their politicians to lie them is that people care about politics," said Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. "You understand that Washington is a dirty place and that lying is actually very helpful to get your policies implemented."
But we all lie to some extent. “Why yes, that outfit looks great on you” when we really mean to say, “Well, it's not the most flattering ensemble.” White lies like these are meant to spare another person's feelings, and can be considered a norm of politeness. But do small lies desensitize us to any negative feelings that may ensue, and make it easier to tell more substantial lies in the future?
Lying may be your brain's fault, honestly
A recent neuroimaging study tracked brain activity while participants were given repeated opportunities to lie for financial gain (Garrett et al., 2016). The goal was to follow the escalation of dishonest behavior over time, and to determine its neural correlates. One of the authors of this paper was Dan Ariely, who is famous for his popular books and his TED talks and his work in behavioral economics. He runs the Center for Advanced Hindsight, the (Dis)Honesty Project, and wrote The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. If there's anyone who understands lying, it's Ariely.
In the study, the subjects viewed pictures of jars filled with pennies. The experimental set-up involved the subjects in the role of 'Advisor' and confederates in the role of 'Estimator'. The Advisors got a better and longer look at the jars and relayed their estimated count to the confederates, who in turn guessed the number of pennies in each jar. The players were told that at the end of the experiment, one trial would be randomly selected and both parties would be paid according to how accurate the Estimator had been on that trial. Then the Advisor was privately told that the final payment did not depend on accuracy, but the Estimator didn't know this.
The Advisor was also told that the incentive structure would be manipulated, but the Estimator didn't know this, either. Dishonesty about the amount of money in the jar (overestimation) could benefit the participant at the expense of their partner (self-serving/other-harming), benefit both (self-serving/other-serving), benefit the partner at the expense of the participant (self-harming/other-serving), or a baseline condition where it would benefit neither. There were 60 trials of each, in four separate blocks, to track any changes in dishonesty over time.
A total of 55 volunteers performed the task, with 25 of them participating in the fMRI portion of the study. The behavioral results were collapsed across all 55 participants and were not reported separately for the fMRI subjects. As expected, dishonesty escalated across the course of the blocks that were self-serving, to a greater extent for self-serving/other-harming (green) than for self-serving/other-serving (purple).
But in general, this wasn't an overly selfish bunch of people. The participants started at a dishonesty level of £4 when out for only themselves, compared to £12 when it benefited them as well as their partners. Altruistic dishonesty, you might say.
Fig. 1 (Garrett et al., 2016). (c–e) Averaging mean dishonesty across participants on every trial and correlating with trial number (N = 60 trials) in each condition revealed significant escalation when dishonesty was self-serving but not otherwise (Self-serving–Other-harming: r58 = 0.66, P < 0.001; Self-serving–Other-serving: r58 = 0.83, P < 0.001; Self-harming–Other-serving: r58 = −0.23, P = 0.08).
What about the neuroimaging results? Were there brain regions that tracked the subtle increase in dishonesty? The authors selected their regions of interest (ROI) via Neurosynth, an online meta-analytic framework based on words that appear in a huge database of articles. The search term they used was “emotion”, which is rather general now isn't it. The rationale for this choice was that (1) people show increased emotional arousal when dishonest; and (2) responses to emotional stimuli diminish with repeated presentation (variously known as habituation, repetition suppression, or adaptation).
It wasn't clear to me why the authors didn't conduct a whole-brain analysis in the first place; they treated it as an “exploratory analysis”.1 And the emotion ROI was basically the amygdala.
My Cousin Amygdala had an opinion about this.
"We didn't get any effects in the amygdala."— My Cousin Amygdala (@CousinAmygdala) October 24, 2016
"Let's give the impression we did by reporting an unrelated @neurosynth analysis." pic.twitter.com/hDLInjpgv8
One of the authors explained the results in a press release:
"When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie," explains senior author Dr Tali Sharot (UCL Experimental Psychology). "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."
Would I Lie to You About Lie Adaptation?
But it's not that simple. Amygdala activity ≠ negative feeling. The senior author certainly knows this, since her previous work linked amygdala activity to optimism, of all things (Sharot et al., 2007). 2 The CNN report on the study had a silly eye-rolling title, but they did interview an independent expert, to their credit.
[Lisa Feldman Barrett] says focusing on the amygdala as the brain's source of emotion may be misguided.
Hand-selected, meta-analyses of brain mapping data, as opposed to results spit out by Neurosynth, she says, have shown that the amygdala is not necessarily critical for emotion.
. . .
Barrett said she also wonders if the research results would hold outside a laboratory's doors.
"They did not reward or punish for lying, whereas there is always a payoff or risk in real life," she said. "That might cause the amygdala to maintain its engagement."
All of this said, Barrett said she doesn't doubt that habituation plays a part in lying. She just isn't sure this new research, pointing to the amygdala as the source of emotion, focuses on the correct cause.
A very high-stakes real life experiment would put the most egregious public liars in a scanner during a simulated press conference or a late night bout of tweeting to see what happens when the falsehoods get more and more preposterous.
There is no such thing as “alternative facts.” Do not become desensitized to bald-faced lies.
White House press secretary attacks media for accurately reporting inauguration crowds
. . .
"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period," Spicer said, contradicting all available data.
1 This wasn't always the case, apparently.
2 I was quite critical of that study at the time:
My Amygdala Is Very Optimistic Today...
...But My Subgenual Cingulate Is Sad
Garrett, N., Lazzaro, S., Ariely, D., & Sharot, T. (2016). The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn.4426
Sharot T, Riccardi AM, Raio CM, Phelps EA. (2007). Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature 450(7166):102-5.
A Good Piece in Politico
Trump's Lies vs. Your Brain
The Neurocritic Archives of Lie Detection
Would I Lie to You?
More Lies... Damn Lies...
Would I Lie To You Yet Again?
Lie To Me on the Autobiographical Implicit Association Test
Brain Scans and Lie Detection: True or False?
Kellyanne Conway: Sean Spicer gave "alternative facts"@chucktodd: "Alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods." pic.twitter.com/QBkoDqoTdp— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) January 22, 2017
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