In Box

Liar, Liar

Are politicians really less honest than the rest of us?

Illustration by Oliver Munday for FP
Illustration by Oliver Munday for FP

Is there any profession so disliked and distrusted as “politician”? Only 7 percent of poll respondents give U.S. elected officials “high” or “very high” ratings when it comes to honesty and ethical standards, according to the latest Gallup figures. That’s on par with those paragons of dishonesty, car salesmen, and a step below telemarketers. The guys who invented credit-default swaps and bundled your home loan into mortgage-backed securities (you know, the friendly bankers at Lehman Brothers et al.)? They rank almost four times as high on the trustworthy scale.

To be fair, it’s not as if politicians haven’t earned the reputation — from Richard Nixon (“I’m not a crook“) to George H.W. Bush (“Read my lips“) to Bill Clinton (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) to Anthony Weiner (“That’s not my …”). No wonder, then, that in a U.S. election year with two relatively squeaky-clean men running for the White House, it’s still fraught with rumors of hidden offshore bank accounts and fake birth certificates. And in a billion-dollar campaign with both sides spending lavishly on ads that accuse the other of dishonest dealings and spreading lies, it’s hardly a surprise that we tend to think of elected officials as professional fabricators.

Yet when my colleagues and I conducted a series of experiments, we found that people on Wall Street were more than twice as likely to lie as those on Capitol Hill. Even after the financial crisis, they get a pass. Why? Are we focusing on the wrong bad guys?

Let’s be honest. We all lie. We embellish our accomplishments to impress others and sugarcoat our insults to avoid offending them. We tell our wives they’ve lost weight, we say we’re sorry when we’re not, and we claim to be avid recyclers. And we lie to strangers, too, often without realizing it. University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman found that pairs of strangers meeting each other for the first time were much more inclined to lie to the other person than they realized. After reviewing video of their conversations with strangers, 60 percent of participants admitted that they told two to three lies in the first 10 minutes. Now imagine what a professional politician does on the campaign trail, where he might meet thousands of strangers every day.

In a number of experiments I’ve conducted over the years, I’ve found in general that very few people take full advantage of the ability to cheat — mostly we just massage things a bit. We’re not awful, immoral people, yet almost all of us want to gain from cheating. We’re hard-wired to be competitive, and in experiments that create conditions where there’s a presumption that others will fib, people cheat more.

The main culprit is rationalization. Forces that increase our ability to rationalize lying (such as when our peers are doing it, when we think the party we’re deceiving is corrupt, or when we think our actions are for a good cause) serve to increase the level of dishonesty that we are comfortable with. But the forces that decrease rationalization (reminders of our moral obligations, realizing the consequences of our actions, and so on) have the reverse effect of decreasing our dishonesty. Funny enough, the fear of getting caught plays almost no role at all.

In other words, a lot of people cheat, at least just a little bit. So why do we expect our politicians to be any different?

Politicians are, by definition, in positions of power. They are elected to represent large groups of people and make important decisions for all these constituents. The problem with power is that it comes with some nasty side effects. When you put people in a position of power, they very quickly assume that position and, whether intentionally or not, start to abuse it. In a 2010 study investigating the moral hypocrisy of the powerful, researchers at Tilburg and Northwestern universities found that when people are assigned to powerful positions, or even if they are merely put in the mindset of having power, they cheat more and think of their own transgressions as less bad. At the same time, they tend to hold their underlings to higher standards.

Another byproduct of being a politician has to do with the fact that politicians make decisions that influence the well-being of others. As such, they’re actually more inclined to tell half-truths or even outright lies because they believe it will ultimately serve others. I’ve examined this sort of “altruistic cheating” and found that while people will cheat a bit to help themselves, they cheat more when someone else also benefits. In fact, as the number of beneficiaries increases, so does the level of cheating. Study participants also experience less guilt when cheating for others, as compared with when they are just cheating for themselves.

Washington itself is undoubtedly part of the problem — because politicians are social animals, and lying, it turns out, is very much a social disease. When a rookie politician looks around and sees that his peers are behaving dishonestly, he determines that this behavior is acceptable and will be likely to follow suit. Party affiliation may also play a big role. In a study that my colleagues and I ran at Carnegie Mellon University, we planted a fake participant who looked like either a fellow student (wearing Carnegie Mellon attire) or a student from a rival university (wearing a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt). We then asked the plant to make clear that he was cheating. When the student was wearing the Carnegie Mellon sweatshirt, his behavior signaled to his peers that it was OK to cheat — and their cheating increased. But when he was wearing the Pittsburgh sweatshirt, his dishonesty made cheating appear less acceptable, and it thus decreased. This applies to politicians as well: When a senator sees her fellow party members lying or misrepresenting the truth, it becomes the moral standard.

With all these forces combined, is it any wonder that politicians are deemed the most untrustworthy characters? Still, the question remains: Do politicians cheat more in their professional lives than the rest of us? Given their position of power, the easy justification that fibbing has an altruistic end, and the prevailing norm of dishonest behavior that is so commonplace in the halls of politics, I suspect that the answer is a resounding “yea.”

But there’s a wrinkle here that I feel compelled to admit. In that study in which folks on Wall Street cheated twice as much as those on Capitol Hill, we ran the experiment at bars in New York where bankers hang out and similar haunts in Washington. And anyone who has been to a happy hour on Capitol Hill knows these places are packed with bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young congressional staffers. Most probably haven’t been on the job long enough to learn to lie yet. So maybe the bankers aren’t so much worse after all.

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