Even by the standards of those running for higher office, Donald Trump tells a lot of lies. Of the Trump claims that PolitiFact had checked as of late last week, a full 77 percent were deemed “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” — the corresponding percentage for Ted Cruz is 66, Hillary Clinton 28, and Bernie Sanders 29 (though Sanders is the only candidate without a pants-on-fire howler on record). And what’s striking about so many of Trump’s lies, as John Oliver recounted on a megaviral Last Week Tonight segment on Trump, is just how checkable they are. They’re the sort of falsehoods you shouldn’t expect to get away with.
This is the sort of behavior we wouldn’t normally associate with a successful campaign, and yet Trump has maintained a solid lead for months now and seems very much on track to win the Republican nomination.
Here are three ideas that can help explain what’s going on:
1. To Trump’s target audience, the lying is a feature, not a bug.
Part of the problem is that we may be overestimating how much people actually judge high-profile figures like Trump on the basis of honesty. “It turns out that people want their politicians to lie to them — people view politics as a mean to an end, and if they care about the ends, they’re willing for the means to be a little bit more crooked,” said Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke and the author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves.
Trump, of course, is seen by his supporters as speaking truth to power, as breaking through the strictures of p.c. discourse — they speak glowingly of his ability to “tell it like it is.” Given that his broader message — you’ve been lied to and bullied and ignored by elites, and I will stand up for you against them — is seen as true and vital, it isn’t surprising that supporters aren’t nitpicking his statements for accuracy, and aren’t particularly concerned when the snobby elites they distrust issue “pants on fire” truth ratings.
2. Trump’s lying makes him appear more confident, and the benefits of this outweigh the negatives of sometimes getting caught.
To Nina Strohminger, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Yale, the certainty Trump projects when he lies is also part of the story here. “It’s his confidence,” she said. “I almost feel like that’s what people are responding to more than whether he’s saying something right or not. It’s just that he’s very confident, and he doesn’t apologize. He basically just acts like the alpha male — I don’t need to tell you the truth, or I don’t need to apologize if I fuck up.” For Strohminger, this sends a signal to Trump’s core supporters and potential supporters that he will be a strong, unwavering leader: “Someone who’s authoritarian isn’t going to ask for forgiveness if they’ve done something wrong.”
This overconfidence halo doesn’t just affect folks with authoritarian tendencies. There’s a fair amount of research showing that overconfident people enjoy certain social and professional benefits in general — as one Science of Us headline put it in 2014, “It Pays to Be Overconfident, Even When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing.” Humans, built to make quick decisions about other people’s trustworthiness and competence, have a general tendency to overweight their confidence levels — we’re often swayed too much by what may be a façade.
3. Sometimes Trump might be hoodwinking people because he has fooled even himself.
Could Trump actually believe some of his own lies? This is a fascinating idea, albeit an alarming one given that we’re talking about someone who could have access to nuclear codes in a bit under a year, and there’s some evidence behind it. A hefty 2011 article by William von Hippel and Robert Trivers, for example, argued that “self-deception evolved to facilitate interpersonal deception by allowing people to avoid the cues to conscious deception that might reveal deceptive intent.” In other words, if I believe the lie I’m telling you, it’s unlikely my body language will give me away. From my point of view, there’s nothing to be nervous about.
Von Hippel and Trivers offer two other potential advantages to self-deception: For one thing, it “eliminates the costly cognitive load” associated with keeping lie-details straight, and it increases the odds that, if the lie is discovered, it’ll be treated as an innocent mistake rather than punished severely. Aspects of some of von Hippel and Trivers’s ideas have been empirically tested. An article published in 2014 in PLOS One argued, as per its title, that “Self-Deceived Individuals Are Better at Deceiving Others.”
Pulling these ideas together — and it’s impossible to say this for sure in the absence of a full psychological workup of Trump (which would be a fascinating undertaking) — it could be the case that Trump has a bell-curve-breaking ability to self-deceive, and that this makes him a better liar, and that this wins him support among the sort of people who respond to his lies. If that’s true, it doesn’t come close to fully explaining the Trump phenomenon, of course — but it’s a start.
Now let’s see how well all of this works in the general election.