Dr Tali Sharot, from University College London, thinks she knows why Trump’s lies are getting out of control
It’s no secret anymore that President Donald Trump is a liar. According to the Washington Post, when Trump visited Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on 7 September this year – where he spoke to reporters on Air Force One, held a pair of fundraisers and was interviewed by three local reporters – he made 125 false or misleading statements in a single day.
Yup, he lied more than 100 times in 24 hours, which is astounding.
Trump lies about everything, from his inauguration crowd sizes to his tax returns. He – seemingly – just can’t stop himself.
And now one psychologist has come up with a fascinating (and very convincing) theory that could explain all of Trump’s untruths.
Dr Tali Sharot, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, spoke to MSNBC about her research which suggests that when you lie once, you’ll find it easier to repeat that lie. So, over time, people can find themselves telling more and more lies without suffering any internal shame or embarrassment.
“Research done in our lab… suggests that the emotional response that people have to their own lies is reduced every time they lie,” she said in a segment earlier this year.
“They don’t have that negative arousal that comes with lying so there is nothing curbing their dishonesty, and so dishonesty just escalates over time.”
The researcher added: “I think the way to think about it is, it’s a bit like perfume. You buy a new perfume, you put it on and it smells quite strongly. Over time you put it again and again and after a while, you can’t smell it anymore because you have adapted — you really need to apply it more liberally in order to smell.
“So your own dishonesty, repeated dishonesty, is a bit like perfume that you just adjust to over time and you can’t adjust to it anymore.”
Dr Sharot clarified the science behind her research in the original study: “When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie. However, this response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it falls the bigger our lies become. This may lead to a ‘slippery slope’ where small acts of dishonesty escalate into more significant lies.”
And – perhaps even more concerning - Dr Sharot explained how this ‘slippery slope’ process could work to make the public more likely to believe lies and misleading statements.
“I think the alarming possibility, and there’s research to suggest this, is that people don’t only adapt to their own lying but they adapt to the lying of other people. They’re more likely to just get used to it. There is a danger that everyone is adapting to this culture of dishonesty because it’s happening over time quite gradually.”
Confusingly, some of Trump’s lies don’t even seem to serve any purpose, like when he lied about the weather (he once said it was ‘really sunny’ when it was, in fact, raining) and this, some have argued, could be chalked up to a deliberate tactic.
If you’re willing, for a minute, to give Trump credit as an astute political operative, it’s possible to view his lies as part of a process known as non-linear warfare.
As Vanity Fair explains, non-linear warfare, developed as a concept by Putin adviser and Kremlin propagandist Vladislav Surkov, essentially uses “conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control.”
So, the political theory goes, the more lies you tell – even ridiculous lies – the harder it is for your opponents to challenge you as they constantly lurch from one scandal and conflict to the next.
“What if Trump [is] actually drawing from a sophisticated postmodern propaganda model developed by none other than Vladimir Putin, Vladislav Surkov, and their political technologists at the Kremlin?” Vanity Fair writer Mike Mariani asked.
“While Trump may not have state-controlled media at his disposal, as Putin does, to serve as 24-7 propaganda organs both domestically and abroad, his team is finding ways to shrewdly approximate Putin’s capacity to shape narratives and create alternative realities.”
However you explain Trump’s culture of dishonesty - and as bleak as it may sound - it’s hard to come away from the situation without a deep-seated sense of dread about what it all means for our political future.