With little regard for precision, the terms “lie” and “liar” are being used to describe an assortment of fantasies, fabulisms and falsehoods emanating from the White House.
Under perjury laws, a “lie” requires specific knowledge of the falsity and an intent to deceive. Under slander laws, the assertion (“you lied”) must reference a fact that is amenable to proof. The epithet “liar” is otherwise a subjective opinion, and sometimes it is just a “lusty and imaginative expression of contempt.”
In the political context, the term “lying” is being loosely applied to the full “spectrum of untruths,” a domain that courts have found to include “white lies, partial truths, misinterpretation and deception,” along with “rhetorical hyperbole.”
In court, as a criminal forensic psychologist, I have been qualified as an expert on the specific question of whether or not someone “lied” and is a “liar.” When a prosecutor demands that I use those specific words, there is usually an objection, and then a ruling qualifying me as an expert in assessing credibility.
I have no ability whatsoever when it comes to discerning honesty from face reading and eyeball peering. From my understanding of the literature, other psychologists do not possess that ability either.
What psychologists do possess is an understanding of how people forge untruths and generate false impressions, and the idea that not every diversion from the truth is a “lie.”
Freud taught us that both normal and neurotic individuals engage “defense mechanisms” such as denial, repression, intellectualization and rationalization to distort truth and ward off anxiety. Experimental psychology describes a more willful style of deceit – the Artful Dodge – that is commonly employed by psychopaths and politicians.
Experiments measuring susceptibility to deceit have found that in judging credibility, people are easily distracted by the “social dimensions” of the interaction. They fail to detect dishonesty because they pay more attention to the messenger than to the message itself. This follows from the “theory of conversational implicature” – people perceived as likeable are assumed to be acting in good faith. The Artful Dodger deceives by providing sufficiently truthful answers to similar, but less relevant questions. An impressively delivered irrelevancy can elicit more trust than an awkward statement of truth.
The manner in which President Donald Trump spreads misinformation and misunderstanding seems to go beyond just the clever use of dodge and distraction. Still, it would not always be called “lying.” Too much of what he says is lacking the type of clarity and specificity that would elevate it to the status of a knowing and intentional falsehood. Too much of it falls within the broader “spectrum of untruth.”
The president does not often tell ordinary lies. Instead, he appears to create his own functional reality from scraps of unfiltered information. Narcissists commonly do this. They bend reality to gratify the needs of their ego and to manipulate outcomes. A fungible and fleeting belief system is a useful tool if you are seeking to win friends and exasperate your enemies.
When White House spokespeople say that the president believes what he believes, they are not arguing that he is delusional. What they mean is that it is true for him, in his mind, where reality is fluid and “alternative facts” are abundant.
If you believe something is true, it is not a “lie.” When someone tells me they have space alien mold growing in their brain, I do not accuse them of lying.
Similarly, I do not brand tangential and evasive statements as “lies,” even when they are clever. If a “lie” requires awareness, it is not the term to describe the obtuse products of a fevered or undisciplined mind.
To paraphrase Richard Milhouse Nixon, when the president says it, it means it is not a lie.
Paul G. Mattiuzzi is a Sacramento-based criminal forensic psychologist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.