(Getty/Joe Raedle)

Here's the key to Trump's outrageous lies: He sells them with conviction

Research suggests people are more easily persuaded by apparent sincerity and wishful thinking than by actual facts


Amanda Marcotte
March 5, 2017 5:00PM (UTC)

Donald Trump lies, a lot. He lies so much it's usually safer to assume any random statement he makes is false until proven otherwise. The Washington Post has been tracking the president's falsehoods, and as of this week, he has told an average of 4.5 lies a day in the six weeks he's been in office.

Yet somehow, his supporters cling to this bizarre notion that he's an honest man who shoots straight from the hip. During the campaign, polling showed that voters thought Trump was more honest than Hillary Clinton, even though PolitiFact has described her as one of the most truthful contemporary politicians, beating not only all available Republicans but also Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. (Only Barack Obama has been found to be more truthful.)

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Trump's supporters continue to believe in their man. While most Americans trust the news media more than Trump, a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 78 percent of the Republicans surveyed insisted that Trump is more trustworthy.

How can Trump's supporters be so blind to the president's measurable aversion to facts?

Part of the problem, as psychologist Bill von Hippel explained in a phone interview, is that Trump supporters "feel that what he’s saying he genuinely believes.” This sense that Trump believes in himself may matter more than the actual facts. 

Von Hippel, who teaches at the University of Queensland in Australia, is part of a research team that just published the paper "Self-deception facilitates interpersonal persuasion" in the Journal of Economic Psychology. His study, which involved 306 subjects, suggests that those who excel at deceiving others often deceive themselves first. The best liars, it turns out, are people who can successfully lie to themselves.

Researchers asked study subjects to write a short essay aimed at influencing reader opinions about a man named "Mark." Some were told to convince the readers that Mark is a bad guy, and others, that he's a good guy. (A third group was told to simply decide for themselves and write a piece expressing their honestly formed opinion.) To obtain evidence for their piece, the participants were given a series of videos, some showing Mark doing good things, others showing him doing bad things and still others  that were neutral.

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What the researchers found was that people who were assigned a goal — convincing readers to like or dislike Mark — focused their efforts on gathering information that shored up that goal. If the first videos they saw affirmed their assigned opinion, they turned off the TV and began writing without gathering more information. If the first videos they saw conflicted with their goal, they kept watching until they saw videos that provided the evidence they needed.

More important, researchers found that many of the participants convinced themselves that Mark was either good or bad, depending on what they were told to focus on.

"To help themselves believe their persuasive message, participants in the current experiments biased their information gathering and in so doing they convinced themselves of its veracity," the paper explains.

Those who were better at convincing themselves, in turn, wrote more persuasive essays than people who didn't form a personal opinion about Mark.

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“If you have to persuade someone else about something you’re not sure is true, the first thing you’re going to do is persuade yourself," von Hippel argued. "And once you’ve persuaded yourself, then conceivably you’d be more effective in persuading others.”

He went on to suggest this is why Trump is so good at lying to his supporters. It may well be that when Trump makes false statements, he has convinced himself that's what he actually believes.

“He may be saying things that aren’t factually accurate, but they appear to be things he believes," von Hippel mused. And because he seems to believe what he's saying, his supporters perceive him as "honest." For him, the actual truth, in this sense, matters less than his audience's sense that he means well. 

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Now, there's no way to know for sure whether Trump — or Sean Spicer or Stephen Miller — really has talked himself into believing his own lies, or whether he's just a really good actor. In a sense, it hardly matters. The real issue here is that people tend to rate a politician's honesty less by the factual accuracy of what the politician says, and more by whether they believe that the politician himself believes what he is saying.

As an example, von Hippel flagged one of Trump's most obnoxious campaign falsehoods, his claim that he saw Muslims in New Jersey streets celebrating after 9/11. Initially, Trump claimed to have seen this with his own eyes, which was impossible, as he was in Manhattan that day. Then he claimed to have seen it on TV, which is also impossible, as no such video was aired on TV. No such video exists.

Trump has never apologized for saying something so obnoxiously and incontestably false. In fact, his supporters have vigorously defended him, clinging to rumors and urban legends as "evidence" that he is honest, even though it is indisputable that he did not see what he claims to have seen. That Trump is not telling the truth doesn't shake their conviction that he meant what he said.

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In the minds of Trump supporters, von Hippel suggested, "In essence, it’s not really a lie, even if no one ever videotaped it. They all agree that’s what [Muslims] would have wanted to do."  

It's this conviction of Trump — his apparent dead certainty that American Muslims are untrustworthy and quite likely treasonous — that his followers respond to. There's no evidence that's true, and certainly the details he invokes to justify that belief are flat-out false. But since Trump seems to be completely sincere in his racism, it makes him read as honest to others, especially those who already agree with his racist beliefs.

Trump has an alarming habit of saying one thing one minute, and then flipping around and saying the opposite thing shortly thereafter. Even that may be a measure of how good he is at self-deception: Not only can he convince himself of what he's saying, but he can also convince himself that he never held a contradictory belief.

The fact that Trump says things that are generally seen as socially unacceptable also reinforces his supporters' belief that he is honest, von Hippel added. If he expresses vile beliefs that most people shy away from, that suggests to his followers that he must believe deeply in what he's saying. Why else would he say it?

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Indeed, as a Trump watcher myself, I can safely say that one thing I trust is that Trump is completely sincere in his conviction that nonwhite people are inferior to white people. No matter how ardently he believes this, of course, I view it as a false and destructive belief.

But as von Hippel's study and many others have shown, facts have little bearing on what most people believe. What persuades people is, first of all, how much they want to believe something is true and, second, whether they believe the person saying these things is sincere. Trump's ability to spout lies that conservatives long to hear while seeming to be a true believer is pure gold. Facts stand little chance against that combination.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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