He tells far more lies, and far more cruel ones, than ordinary people do
By Bella DePaulo
Bella DePaulo is a social scientist who has published extensively on the psychology of lying. Her most recent book is “Alone: The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone.”
I spent the first two decades of my career as a social scientist studying liars and their lies. I thought I had developed a sense of what to expect from them. Then along came President Trump. His lies are both more frequent and more malicious than ordinary people’s.
In research beginning in the mid-1990s, when I was a professor at the University of Virginia, my colleagues and I asked 77 college students and 70 people from the nearby community to keep diaries of all the lies they told every day for a week. They handed them in to us with no names attached. We calculated participants’ rates of lying and categorized each lie as either self-serving (told to advantage the liar or protect the liar from embarrassment, blame or other undesired outcomes) or kind (told to advantage, flatter or protect someone else).
At The Washington Post, the Fact Checker feature has been tracking every false and misleading claim and flip-flop made by President Trump this year. The inclusion of misleading statements and flip-flops is consistent with the definition of lying my colleagues and I gave to our participants: “A lie occurs any time you intentionally try to mislead someone.” In the case of Trump’s claims, though, it is possible to ascertain only whether they were false or misleading, and not what the president’s intentions were. (And while the subjects of my research self-reported how often they lied, Trump’s falsehoods were tallied by The Post.)
I categorized the most recent 400 lies that The Post had documented through mid-November in the same way my colleagues and I had categorized the lies of the participants in our study.
The college students in our research told an average of two lies a day, and the community members told one. A more recent study of the lies 1,000 U. S. adults told in the previous 24 hours found that people told an average of 1.65 lies per day; the authors noted that 60 percent of the participants said they told no lies at all, while the top 5 percent of liars told nearly half of all the falsehoods in the study.
In Trump’s first 298 days in office, however, he made 1,628 false or misleading claims or flip-flops, by The Post’s tally. That’s about six per day, far higher than the average rate in our studies. And of course, reporters have access to only a subset of Trump’s false statements — the ones he makes publicly — so unless he never stretches the truth in private, his actual rate of lying is almost certainly higher.
That rate has been accelerating. Starting in early October, The Post’s tracking showed that Trump told a remarkable nine lies a day, outpacing even the biggest liars in our research.
But the flood of deceit isn’t the most surprising finding about Trump.
Both the college students and the community members in our study served their own interests with their lies more often than other people’s interests. They told lies to try to advantage themselves in the workplace, the marketplace, their personal relationships and just about every other domain of everyday life. For example, a salesperson told a customer that the jeans she was trying on were not too tight, so she could make the sale. The participants also lied to protect themselves psychologically: One college student told a classmate that he wasn’t worried about his grades, so the classmate wouldn’t think him stupid.
Less often, the participants lied in kind ways, to help other people get what they wanted, look or feel better, or to spare them from embarrassment or blame. For example, a son told his mother he didn’t mind taking her shopping, and a woman took sides with a friend who was divorcing, even though she thought her friend was at fault, too
About half the lies the participants told were self-serving (46 percent for the college students, 57 percent for the community members), compared with about a quarter that were kind (26 percent for the students, 24 percent for the community members). Other lies did not fit either category; they included, for instance, lies told to entertain or to keep conversations running smoothly.
One category of lies was so small that when we reported the results, we just tucked them into a footnote. Those were cruel lies, told to hurt or disparage others. For example, one person told a co-worker that the boss wanted to see him when he really didn’t, “so he’d look like a fool.” Just 0.8 percent of the lies told by the college students and 2.4 percent of the lies told by the community members were mean-spirited.
My colleagues and I found it easy to code each of our participants’ lies into just one category. This was not the case for Trump. Close to a quarter of his false statements (24 percent) served several purposes simultaneously.
Nearly two-thirds of Trump’s lies (65 percent) were self-serving. Examples included: “They’re big tax cuts — the biggest cuts in the history of our country, actually” and, about the people who came to see him on a presidential visit to Vietnam last month: “They were really lined up in the streets by the tens of thousands.”