Lying: The New Normal

Donald Trump says Ted Cruz is a liar. Marco Rubio says Donald Trump is a liar. Everyone says Hillary Clinton is a liar. Her husband, Bill Clinton, admitted years ago that he’s a liar. And if you’ve just binge-watched the new season of “House of Cards” — or any season — you know that everyone in Washington is, yes, a liar.

So much for founding father George Washington’s famous words: “Honesty is the best policy.”

And it’s not just politicians. Brian Williams, Tiger Woods, John Edwards, Milli Vanilli … the list of famous fibbers grows longer with each passing day.

“Liar” used to be such a serious word. In the Catholic church, “lying” is a sin. By law, perjury — lying under oath — is a crime. And yet lying is all around us, especially in politics and pop culture. It has become a more culturally acceptable thing to do.

“The essence of lying, the psychological meaning of lying, are the same now as they were during the time of Claudius and King Saul. But now the usage of lying seems to be a little more frequent, a little more acceptable,” says Joe Tecce, a psychology professor at Boston College and an expert in lying. “An occasional lie to save someone’s health, pain or life is justified. Habitual lying, frequent lying will tear the fabric of trust of our society.”

In our political society, the liar concept has hit a sweet spot. Particularly for Trump.

“People have lost faith in the people who are running our government and Donald Trump represents rebellion, and therefore lying can be part of that rebellion. Trump may be capitalizing on society’s view that the country is run by people who can’t be trusted,” says Tecce. “People are very skeptical and disgusted with the lack of forthrightness in our society and Trump represents a stream of consciousness and gives the impression of being open and impulsively honest. He may not be, but he gives the impression.”

Trump's tactic of accusing others of lying has worked, it would seem.

Louie Hunter, Ted Cruz’s Georgia campaign co-chair, said the allegations of untruths being pushed by Trump and Rubio were heard by voters there. "I think both the Trump and the Rubio campaigns have seized on the narrative that if they say ‘liar’ enough, enough people are going to believe it," Hunter told the Washington Post. "I think that has manifested itself into some people questioning, albeit incorrectly, the real moral character of Sen. Cruz and of this campaign." Cruz came in third, behind Trump and Rubio in the Georgia primary.

Although the rise in fact-checking the candidates has forced a higher level of awareness of the "truthiness" of candidates, politicos are not the only ones who lie to make themselves look good.

According to a study cited by, most people lie in everyday conversation. The University of Massachusetts study found that 60 percent of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation for the study, telling an average of two to three lies.

"We live in a culture so dense with lies that a supposedly truthful statement has to be predicated with the words 'in all honesty,'" author Barbara Ehrenreich told CNN earlier in the campaign season. "[It] may sound like mere verbal filler but actually sets off an alarm: If the speaker hasn't been honest up until this point, what has he or she been doing — lying?"

It happens most when people are trying to appear likable and competent — politicians or not, according to a 2002 study conducted by University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert S. Feldman. "People tell a considerable number of lies in everyday conversation," Feldman said at the time.

The study also found that lies told by men and women differ in content, not in quantity. "Women were more likely to lie to make the person they were talking to feel good, while men lied most often to make themselves look better," Feldman said.

Could that be why Hillary Clinton has been accused of lying so much? In a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll this month, when asked for one word to describe Hillary Clinton, the word "liar" came up most often.

Most of our lies, however, are not presidential matters. According to a 2011 Toronto University study, by age four, 90 percent of children have grasped the concept of lying and are found to be capable of lying. And if parents don't stop it, kids keep doing it.

We lie to our parents, friends and spouses, say any number of studies. An AARP study from 2012 found the vast majority of people in committed relationships (married, living together or otherwise) — as many as 75 percent — admitted they regularly lie to a significant other.

There was even a survey by a British film company that found 30 percent of respondents had lied about seeing "The Godfather." They were trying to appear knowledgeable about the film.

Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. His research on lying was featured in the 2015 documentary, "(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies." The bottom line, he says, is: "To what extent can we can be dishonest and still think of ourselves as good people?"

Last Modified: March 14, 2016, 7:17 am

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