If you ever needed evidence that politicians lie, just check the front pages of today’s newspapers. You cannot move for the vitriol piled upon the self-admitted liar, Chris Huhne. Having spent several years denying the allegations about his comparatively trivial motoring offence, he now faces the likelihood of prison for perverting the course of justice as well as a ruined career and a split family. One relatively small lie, several big consequences.
So, why did he do it? That is the question on many people’s lips this morning. Indeed, he has probably asked himself that very same question – why?
The problem is lying is normal. We all do it. Indeed, research shows that we lie in one in five of our social encounters every day. On average we tell about half a dozen lies every day of our life. The psychology of lying has only really been explored in the past 15 years or so. What we know is rather limited, but we do know everyone does it (those who say they don’t lie are probably lying..!).
Most lies are positive
We also know that most of the lies we tell are “false positives”. Someone asks us “does my bum look big in this” and we say “no, you look lovely” whilst thinking “oh my goodness that makes your rear end look enormous”. We tell people we “love your new hairstyle” whilst thinking “that’s dreadful” and we compliment people on their new business idea when we think it is plain daft. Such “false positive” lying is the oil through which many social relationships are maintained. It appears we use lying of this kind to keep our relationships on an even keel, to make sure that the other person feels liked and positive.
People also lie to boost their own self-esteem. Indeed, people who lie a great deal tend to have issues with their own self-worth. The more they feel their self-esteem is threatened, the more they lie. Research suggests that politicians have very high self-worth levels and therefore any threat to that could trigger the potential for lying. The more you value yourself, the more you are prone to lying it seems.
But many political reporters and old hacks from the lobby will tell you they “know” when a politician is lying to them. There are some key signals of lying which we notice at the subconscious level. Indeed, you probably know yourself when someone is being less than truthful with you. There are body language changes, variations in tone of voice, eye contact movements and facial expression changes. We tend to spot them and simply “know” we are being told a porky. That’s why the “does my bum look big in this” question is usually answered from behind – there are no tell-tale body language or facial expression signs to show the lie..!
How do we spot liars online?
On the Internet we have a problem. We don’t have body language, eye contact, facial expressions or tone of voice – the very things which help us spot deceit. That means we can more easily be duped online than in the “real world”. Today is Safer Internet Day which highlights the way we need to think about our online safety and protect ourselves whilst online. Much of the discussion around Safer Internet Day is about security measures such as firewalls and the policies for using the web. However, an essential component of online safety is to be aware that what you are looking at may not always be true. Online, those subconscious thoughts of doubt disappear because the signals we need to trigger them are not present.
So, in order to be safer online you need to be more analytical and thoughtful, checking things and people out much more than you might do in the “real world” where your instincts come into play.
Perhaps online it is better to assume that everyone is a self-esteem fuelled politician – much more prone to lying.
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+