Wednesday, April 27, 2022

How To Tell Brazen Lies


Brazen lies

For the past few weeks, Vladimir Putin’s ability to lie so brazenly and with such apparent ease had me thinking about the psychology of lying, and why some people can lie so well and with such facility while others can't. High on this list of skillful liars are politicians, who are able to stand in front of television cameras and millions of viewers and deliver a lie without flinching. In the photo below are two current autocratic heads of state and one ex-POTUS who admires the autocrats. If the ex-POTUS were to be reelected, he could well establish an anocracy: a regime that mixes democratic with autocratic features. 

Three of the world’s most brazen liars

According to The Washington Post, the prior POTUS told 30,573 false or misleading claims over his four years up to January, 2021. That’s about twenty-one falsehoods a day. Imagine cramming that many lies into your day. Until now, the same man continues to perpetuate the brazen lie that the 2020 election had been stolen from him. 

How well do you lie?

I remember one morning in New York City when I was a kid, my grandmother, who doted on me, hatched a naughty plan for me to ditch summer school for the day and accompany her to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. Granny lived by a maxim that you could break a rule here and there as long as no harm was done. The world wasn’t going to end because I missed one day of summer school. I, of course, found this to be a delicious little act of delinquency implemented by my very cool Granny. Just as we were going down the stairs to the subway, who should be walking up the stairs but my summer school teacher, a delightful and sweet woman called Barbara. Granny and I were now in the hot seat.

I don’t remember exactly the lie Granny created and spun in a split second, but I believe there was something about a favorite aunt in Brooklyn who was very ill and wanted to see little Kwei. Not only was Granny nimble on her feet, she code-switched beautifully and put on her best posh accent for Barbara. I was struck by my grandmother's flawless delivery of the untruth. (I wasn’t quite as impressed by the Rockettes, however, but that’s a different matter). The twist in the story is that the next day at school, one of the other teachers asked where I’d been the day before and I told her I’d gone to visit my sick aunt. Where? "In Radio City," I replied. I wondered why she gave me such a bemused look, and so I related the story to Granny when I got back home. She almost fell over laughing. I had to wait for her to catch her breath to explain that Radio City isn’t a city.

The moral of the story? Actually, I’m not quite sure, but it demonstrated a curious effect: My brain had conflated a lie with the truth: going to see my aunt, and going to Radio City Music Hall. Yes, there she is enjoying the show.

 The social role of lying

What is lying? It’s the dual act of suppressing the truth and substituting it with something else. In fact, we all lie. It’s part of our social interactions. If we told the blunt truth all the time, we would hurt a lot of feelings and cause a number of awkward moments. So, we often lie about other people’s appearances, whether you woke me up with your phone call, how good your cooking is, and so on. Our usual response to, “How are you?” is, “I’m fine/great/good/well,” not, “I have an awful case of diarrhea,” or “My menstrual cramps are killing me right now,” or “I’m deeply depressed at the moment." Incidentally, not to be too hung up on race, but I think we need to disband the phrase, white lie, i.e. indicating a “harmless lie." 

“Conscience” and social standing

Many of us choose not to lie about important things because (a) we might be found out and “look bad;” (b) it may cause harm to another party; (c) we may simply feel awful that we have lied., i.e., guilt. Much of this is determined by the way we’ve been brought up and the environment in which we lived. If a child knows that their father is going to make them a target of physical or emotional abuse if they own up to the truth, they may choose a lie for the sake of survival and self-protection.

One of the questions that has baffled most of us is why pathological liars like the gang of three above tell brazen lies even if they know, surely, that we know they’re lying. For normal people, to be discovered having told a whopper of a lie is such an excruciating embarrassment, they’d rather not take a risk, whereas a Trump or Putin (or Kevin McCarthy or Marjorie Taylor-Greene, for that matter) appear to be completely unfazed by the discovery that they have lied. There is neither guilt nor shame.

Physiology of lying

For most, telling the truth is much easier than lying, which appears to create a fight-or-flight response in many of us. I know that if I get caught in a lie, my face goes red-hot and I feel my heart pounding. These physical manifestations are important to detectives in real life and fiction, because looking for signs of deception can shape a murder case. Our detectives, real and imagined, look for possible giveaway signs in the suspect, such as vocal changes, fidgeting, sweating, smiles, eye movements, body positioning, increased breathing rate, and so on. These are the basis of lie detector tests, which measure certain physiological changes such was breathing rate that would indicate the subject could be lying. They are not admissible in most courts in much of the world because of their unreliability. For example, psychopaths pass lie detector tests with lying colors--pun intended.

Neuroscience of lying

The prefrontal cortex in humans is the part of the brain most responsible for impulse control, distinguishing between good and bad, and acceptable social behavior. Oddly, the frontal lobe seems also to decide whether to lie or not and give us the ability to tell a lie, e.g. some people with frontal lobe damage may not be able to lie, and stimulation of the prefrontal cortex appears to improve our ability to lie. The PFC is the last area to fully develop in late adolescence. high-order cognitive processes such as decision-making, reasoning, personality expression, and social cognition.

You can now see why the PFC of an abused child may not develop as fully or correctly as it should, because the brain at birth has a long way to go in several possible directions. Trauma and abuse shape the future of that brain. In a previous post, I described how psychopathy has three components: 
 genetic vulnerability, functional brain loss, and abuse. In the famous 1848 case of Phineas Gage, a metal rod accidentally shot through his head while he was compacting explosives and took away much of his frontal lobe. His personality dramatically changed from a decent, mild-mannered man to one with aggressive tendencies and the inability to work peacefully with others. He could not remain on the job he had done so well in for so many years.

Phineas Gage (1823–1860) shown holding the tamping iron which injured him.
                                        ( Image: Wikipedia via Jack and Beverly Wilgus)

The tie-in

We can now see how psychopathy and lying go together: they appear to be intimately connected to the activities of the frontal lobe. See the list of the characteristics of traitors and notice how lack of empathy is joined at the hip with pathological lying. If these features are a function of the structure and performance of the PFC, it would explain why Putin, for instance, can’t see his war in the same way that you and I do. Our frontal lobes are accurately informing us that this is wrong, wrong, wrong on every possible level, but Putin cannot because he likely has an abnormally structured, or damaged frontal lobe. It explains why he’s immoveable too, because his PFC is certainly not going to change at this late stage. It might also explain the apparent deterioration of his judgement and strategy. His PFC may be further deteriorating with age, worsening the structural abnormalities and in turn, his behavior.

Understanding this is vital in our approach to Putin. We have to get into his brain. I have maintained from the beginning that it’s a huge mistake not to. Why in the world would you think sanctions would resonate with Putin? Because it would resonate with you? Why on earth would oligarchs pressure Putin to stop the war when Putin is the one with the power to have their riches stripped away, or have them poisoned to death?

The best detectives are those who get into the mind of the offender or killer; and they are also those most likely to have a nervous breakdown, because, as we all know, when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.



  1. Great post, Kwei. It makes me even more worried about a Trump Act 2...

  2. “We know they are lying, they know they are lying, they know we know they are lying, we know they know we know they are lying, but they are still lying.” – Attributed to Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

  3. The perfect description for our times: "when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you."

  4. I am a compulsive liar. I even lie about that!

    1. Yes, Caro! That's a known paradox. If I say, "Everything I say is a lie," then it means everything I say is really true. But then that means everything I say is a lie is true. Which means everything I say is a lie IS true, which means...and round and round it goes.