What do you say about a person who lies by dismissing the danger of something only to succumb to it? I’m thinking of radio host Rush Limbaugh, who died this week at age 70 from lung cancer after denying that cigarette smoke was a serious health threat (it “takes 50 years to kill people, if it does,” he said) and smoking for decades.
People who have made a living out of spreading outrageous lies are generally not stupid. What they are is experts at self-deception.
That anyone gets cancer is tragic. But I find it equally tragic that Limbaugh consistently sought to bend facts about public health to the reality he wanted to live in, and thereby endangered the listeners who believed him.
His downplaying of the dangers of smoking was merely a warmup for his participation in PolitiFact's 2020 “lie of the year”: Covid-19 denial. Limbaugh’s repeated lies about the coronavirus included everything from conspiracy theories involving Dr. Anthony Fauci to his suggestion that the virus was nothing more than a stunt by people opposed to President Donald Trump.
But it goes from tragic to mind-bending when one of the purveyors of these lies — someone as knowledgeable, media literate and savvy as Limbaugh — seems to believe the very falsehoods they are spreading, lives as though they are true and then gets stung by them as a result.
After all, people who have made a living out of spreading outrageous lies are generally not stupid. They are experts at self-deception.
I know from writing a book about honesty — which was published just a month before Covid-19 exploded — that self-deception is the strongest and most mysterious of all the deceptions. With self-deception, you’re both the teller and receiver of the lie. That duality can strengthen and turn toxic the biases most of us work to keep in check.
One of those biases is simple overconfidence. We are, it turns out, stunningly overconfident, especially when it comes to our intelligence. For example, Yale University’s Zoe Chance has found that if you let people “accidentally” cheat on a difficult test by giving them an answer key, they will attribute their good performance to their intelligence. In her study, the answer-key group predicted they would do well on the next test even once they saw there was no answer key. (They didn’t.)
When people believe something about themselves, they don’t want to give it up, even in the face of evidence against their belief. One of the key aspects behind this phenomenon is our use of “motivated reasoning.” The definition of motivated reasoning I like best is writer Tim Harford’s, from a fascinating piece detailing how the world’s top authority on Dutch painters managed to convince himself a forged Johannes Vermeer painting was the real thing when it so obviously wasn’t. “Motivated reasoning is thinking through a topic with the aim of reaching a particular conclusion,” Harford explains. You know what you want to be true, so you let the outcome you desire guide your thinking.
If you’re certain that you’re smarter than most other people and you tune out all evidence that contradicts that, why wouldn’t you believe yourself? This explains how blind spots become entrenched in one’s thinking. But what motivates people to be deceptive to begin with?
Ethics researcher Keith Leavitt has looked at why people risk their livelihoods and careers by lying at work and found that they usually do so for three reasons: to protect their own reputation, to protect someone they serve or to protect their organization.
The way you see yourself — a high-achiever, a loyal servant or a team player — can make you go off the rails with fibs and even illegalities, especially when you fear you’re nothing without this identity. (Think of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes and her unwavering commitment to her identity as a visionary tech entrepreneur as she allegedly kept lying to investors and the public about her company.)
I write in my book about how these self-identities motivate us to tell all kinds of false stories about — and to — ourselves, even ones that can be deadly. The person who doubles down on “patriotism” as an identity can wind up justifying their anarchist behavior — say, trying to kidnap a governor — as a full-throttled way to defend their country. The same can happen with those who claim to be “intuitive medical practitioners,” like Dr. Christiane Northrup, formerly a friend of Oprah and now anti-vaxxer who has doubled down on spreading her anti-science lies. Or freedom-loving radio hosts.
But for those who want to actively spread these ideas to gain social status, show they belong or enhance their brand, there’s a crucial step that has to happen: They have to strongly believe what they’re peddling. Otherwise, the competing versions of truth will make them crack, and they’ll always have some kind of “tell” that will give it away. It was behavioral scientists William von Hippel and Robert Trivers who first argued that self-deception evolved to help people better spread their lies and have more confidence doing so.
I would venture to say that the reason Limbaugh so successfully spread lies among his listeners was that he so spectacularly believed them. Thank the evolution of the human psyche for that one!
So, what can we do about these self-deceivers spreading lie after lie? We need to tackle misinformation quickly, in the form of interrupting peoples’ lies with facts. Instead of repeating the misinformation (if only to do a “myths vs. truths” comparison), just state the facts, because research shows that lies tend to stick with people. (Though it is sometimes helpful to be able to consult a database of debunked Covid-19 stories, like Poynter’s.)
But I also have a strategy that has to do with why I started writing a book about honesty right after Trump got elected president. With deception elevated to a national sport, I didn’t want to get stuck only noticing others’ lies while justifying my own.
Creating a more honest world doesn’t actually start with ferreting out others’ self-deception. It starts with noticing your own. This work won’t make the loudmouth Covid-19 denier in your neighborhood Facebook group shut up. But it will help you be accountable to you. And right now, that’s not nothing.