For a theatrical play to be successful and moving for the audience, it has to be plausible, but not real. That is what Aristotle says in “Poetics”. A fake story is charming, amusing and relaxing. The truth on the other hand is upsetting.
There are lies we say out of courtesy or kindness. We might say “you look good today” to someone who looks ugly so that we won’t make him feel any worse, or “you’ll get well soon” to encourage a dying person.
There are lies we say about ourselves (and often to ourselves). Mostly we don’t use these lies to present ourselves better than we really are, but mainly to maintain the impression others have on us.
However, there are also lies we use to manipulate others. The previous types of lies come almost instinctively, but these ones require preparation, skills and talent. Liars of this kind make sure to know their audience inside out and are well prepared to serve their lies artfully. Then they can sell anything to almost anyone, no matter if they are salesmen or politicians.
The more insecure we are, the easier it is to believe in lies and turn our back on the truth.
Why do people believe in lies so easily?
They like being flattered
Flattery is the strongest weapon a liar carries. The saleswoman says “with that body of yours, you can wear anything you like and it will look great on you”. The customer will be ashamed to get out of the store without buying anything. The politician says “people of our nation are intelligent, honest and know how to fight for their rights”, and the voter votes with eyes wide shut. The voter is flattered and will buy anything the politician wants to sell. Well, if this guy is so clever to understand that we are smart and great, he wouldn’t lie to us. From then on, the voters will believe anything that will make them feel good.
They don’t have a clue
When the government claims that e.g. there will be a surplus of 100 billion after taxing the rich, we need to know two things to understand this statement:
a) How much are 100 billion, really? b) Whom does the government call “rich”?
If you don’t have the slightest clue about the fiscal budget, if you don’t know how much the government has to spend on this and that, then there’s no way to know whether this amount is small or big. Also, the government does not tell you who is supposed to be wealthy, but they ensure you large amounts will come in when taxing wealth. It is easy to believe this easy promise if you don’t know much about statistics, state expenses and government budget.
Someone they trust said it
Take media coverage. When the same story is reported on international and local newspapers, they’ll believe the opinion of local media, they’ll believe “their people”. If a story sounds different between right-wing and left-wing newspapers, they’ll choose to believe the one closer to their political beliefs. So when their prime minister says that the country does everything right and all other world leaders disagree, guess whom they’re going to believe!
Then there are luminaries, people whose opinion is greatly valued. An important activist, an experienced politician, a high ranking retired army officer, a well-known author… said something and this something will be believed. Because why would such a respected person ever lie to us?
Unluckily, there are also all types of celebrities. If the owner of the grocery store around the corner says he is being followed, they’ll call him paranoid. But if a singer, actor, model says they’ve seen green creatures with antennas on their head planting potatoes in their backyard, then yes, this is undeniably true.
And even worse, even the most outrageous lie will be accepted if “it was on the news”.
Truths scare them
Even the most gullible ones, have some doubts from time to time, most likely, when the same person has fooled them dozens of times. But even when that happens, they do everything they can to overcome these doubts and suspicions. Why is that?
Because, when they start examining facts and arguments, there is a chance they’ll prove that they have wrongly believed in lies and liars all that time. Making peace with this awkward truth is a lot of trouble, and they know it. To hell then with clues and evidence! They don’t want to get in the uncomfortable state of disenchantment, of accepting that their expectations were faulty. That they have been tricked. They’ll keep believing this crook. As a financially dependent wife would do with her husband; she’ll keep believing he was on a business trip even when she sees the red marks on his shirt.
They hear what they want to hear
Research has shown that people tend to avoid information that contradicts their beliefs or way of thinking. And this can be done in two ways, actively and passively. Actively means that they will choose which articles to read, to ignore the speech of a politician they don’t support, and generally to select the information they will consume. Passively means re-interpreting the information you receive if it runs counter your beliefs, judging it or adapting it to match your opinion so that you won’t have to doubt your own thinking.
Opting for information that corresponds to your own views is easy and safe. People, who want the illusion of safety, build an impervious wall around them blocking all information that could question their opinion.
Does the truth stand any chance at all?
Yet there is another trap: rational people sometimes believe that reasonable arguments are enough to convince and help others who have been deceived. And this too, is a lie. The reality is that if you don’t take into consideration all the psychological parameters mentioned above, then there is no chance to convince anyone about anything, no matter how rational your arguments are.
If you want to have a chance in your efforts to confute popular myths and misconceptions, remember the following:
- The more you make fun of the myth and judge the believers gullibility, the stronger they will hold on to their tale. Talk to them about the value of truth and not about the absurdity of the myth.
- Speak briefly, in plain and understandable words. The more you keep on talking, the more they’ll be frightened you’re just trying to trick them.
- When eradicating a myth and retracting false information, you leave behind a painful gap within the soul of the believer, and you have to find a way to make up for it. You can’t just take away a baby’s favorite blanket. You have to find other ways to comfort the baby until it can sleep without missing blanket.
- You will have to repeat your rational arguments multiple times. The first time, it won’t even be heard. The second time, one or two words might make an impression. You will be asking “didn’t we say the same things yesterday?”, and they might believe you’re making fun of them.
- The bigger the lie one believes in, the more difficult it is for you to prove that it is not true. The truth has endless goods, but it can’t carry the fascination of a conspiracy theory, it doesn’t sell hope and a lot of work is required to make it understandable.
“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting” – Buddha