There are some general reasons why politicians, the world over, lie so much. They do so without any guilt. But peculiar to Nigeria or other infant and growing democracies are high levels of impunity, the need to win at all cost, and the docility of the electorate.
Most politicians are narcissists in nature. So they are arrogant, self-important, see themselves as special. They require excessive admiration and are exploitative. They tend to believe that they are always right and, even if they are not, they are too powerful to suffer the consequences.
For many years in Africa, the impunity of public officers was not challenged. Even when the media and civil society groups flashed brazen cases of impunity, there was no consequence management in the end.
There have also been instances where issues of lying, impunity and even fraud have been politicized, with some sections of the country rising up in support of kinsmen.
And of course, severely impoverished people have resigned themselves to fate, worrying more about how they can feed than what politician do or fail to do in plush government houses. Their situation is so bad that crump dropped for them come as divine intervention.
The constellation of these factors gives political leaders the license to lie. Were they held accountable for every word, for every promise made, they would be more careful with their words and actions.
The False Truth
Unfortunately, it would seem that when a lie is told enough times, people will assume it is true. It is not a stretch to understand why people would believe something if they hear it enough. People expect that lies will be disproved and fade away. So if the lies continue to be heard, people assume, then they must be true.
One of the unintended consequences of the Internet is that information, true or not, lives on forever and it is likely to continue to be believed even in the face of contradictory evidence. Studies have shown, for example, that people are more likely to believe unsubstantiated rumours about a political candidate they oppose them when read in emails and on blogs.
Generally, the lies are fueled by the desperation to win at all cost. Experts have observed that politicians justify their lies and distortions by using a sort of “gaming” analogy. In the same way that a football player will fall and roll over to pretend that there was a foul, the politician believes it’s right to lie or distort, because the ends justifies the means.
Researchers have also shown the following reasons: Politicians know their followers will believe them, even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Politicians and their adherents live in an echo chamber in which everyone watches the same news channel, listens to the same talk radio, reads the same newspapers and web sites, and hangs out with the same like-minded people. So there is an impermeable membrane that prevents conflicting information from entering. The content of the lies is also usually red meat for the politicians’ ravenous base who are only too happy to chew on it for days on end.
According to the researchers, many people don’t want to hear the truth, a fact which is exploited by political sycophants. Truth, as the saying goes, hurts and no one wants to hear things that threaten their existence, their beliefs, or that will make them uncomfortable. It is decidedly better for politicians to tell people what makes them feel comfortable. Few politicians want to be the purveyors of bad news, when they can get away with fairy tales with happy endings.
The following human weaknesses that tend to encourage lying by politicians have also been identified by experts such as Dr. Ronald Riggio.
The Trusting Bias: We tend to trust people too much. Our default psychological mechanism is to believe rather than disbelieve (unless we are in law enforcement, or other professions concerned with professional liars). That is why we are such easy targets for con artists, AND politicians.
Cognitive Laziness: When we hear a claim by a politician, we often don’t (and don’t want to – particularly if the politician is one we support) engage in the mental and physical effort to fact check. Together with the trusting bias, we figure that “he said it, so it must be true.”
Audacious Lying: In politics (and to some extent in social life), the more outlandish or audacious the lie, the more likely people are to believe it if the source is considered at least minimally credible. Even though politicians are on the bottom rungs of “trustworthy” professionals, when it comes to political facts and figures, we give them the benefit of the doubt, and figure, “that seems so crazy that he must be telling the truth,” and cognitive laziness ensures that we don’t check it out.
The opportunities for politicians to lie are as many as there are politicians, but integrity makes a great politician.
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