The psychological reason that so many fall for the "Big Lie"

There's a counterintuitive explanation for why big lies may be easier to believe than small ones

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published February 3, 2022 6:00PM (EST)

Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels coined the term "Big Lie." According to the supposed quote, Goebbels said that if you tell "a lie big enough" and regularly repeat it, "people will eventually come to believe it." That said, Adolf Hitler actually did use the phrase "big lie" — but not to describe his own propaganda strategy. In a darkly ironic case of psychological projection, he came up with the expression to defame the Jewish community.

"In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility," Hitler wrote in "Mein Kampf," his 1925 autobiographical manifesto. He observed that most people are only comfortable telling small lies, and imagined others would be as uncomfortable as themselves perpetuating big ones. "It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously," Hitler explained. "Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation."

Indeed, like many abusers before him, Hitler rationalized his own depraved behavior by falsely accusing his victims of doing the same thing. The story of World War II is, in many ways, a tale of a Big Lie run amok. Germany felt humiliated after its loss in World War I, and the nationalistic pride which had fueled that conflict still burned in the hearts of millions.

This tactic, of a leader hypnotizing vast swathes of the public through the perpetuation of a grandiose falsehood, is a phenomenon that extends well beyond World War II and Adolf Hitler. Recently, the term has been recycled to refer to the falsity that the 2020 presidential election was "stolen" in some indeterminate way, a lie that is repeated ad infinitum by Trump and a slew of his supporters at all levels from yard-sign wielding footsoldier all the way up to his closest legal counsel

The term "Big Lie" is believed to have been first popularized in the Anglophone world by Walter Langer, a psychoanalyst who prepared a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler for the U.S. government in 1943. In that report, Langer wrote

[Hitler's] primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

Beyond Langer, psychologists and sociologists throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century have been intrigued by the success of the Big Lie strategy — meaning a story pushed by a political leader that is clearly bald-faced, yet so grandiose as to make it hard to believe that someone would fabricate it. Indeed, it is an intriguing question as to why this works politically, and why so many millions are so quick to believe Big Lies — be it about voting fraud or Jewish conspiracies. The counterintuitive nature of the Big Lie tactic is perhaps what is most peculiar: wouldn't a small lie be easier to pass off than a large one?

Not necessarily, psychologists say. 

RELATED: The Revolution of 2020: How Trump's Big Lie reshaped history after 220 years

"Repetition is important, because the Big Lie works through indoctrination," Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology who is noted as an expert on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse, told Salon by email. "The Big Lie then becomes its own evidence base — if it is repeated enough, people believe it, and the very repetition almost tautologically becomes the support for the Lie."

Durvasula added that this is amplified by the numerous media platforms which exist in the modern era, as they trick people into thinking a certain falsehood has been reinforced even if all of their media platforms have the same political leanings.

"The banners and hats crucially add an air of silliness to everything. If I can buy a novelty hat about it, can it really be so serious? It's a genius mindf**k."

"Hear something enough it becomes truth," Durvasula explained. "People assume there is an evidence base when the lie is big (it's like a blind spot)."

Indeed, Hitler rose to power through a Big Lie that soothed Germans' wounded egos and targeted already-popular scapegoats: Jews and socialists, who according to the Nazi narrative had betrayed Germany through backroom dealings after the empire had won on the battlefield. All of the "evidence" that Hitler marshaled to support this claim was false (fact-checkers who pointed this out were described as Jews promoting a "big lie"), and for that reason only die-hard Nazis believed the Big Lie — at first. After Hitler gained power, however, he was able to effectively spread both that fabrication and other lies, convincing more and more people that a conspiracy of Jews and leftists were enemies of Europe's supposedly superior races. Dissent was squashed, fascism prevailed and even so-called moderates began to think that there must be at least some truth in the accusations. After all, they were being repeated everywhere.

This omnipresence, apparently, is a big part of what makes it so easy for people to be fooled by a Big Lie.

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Logician Miriam Bowers-Abbott, an associate professor at Mount Carmel College of Nursing, stressed the importance of repetition in spreading a Big Lie.

"What's especially helpful is repetition in a variety of contexts," Bowers-Abbott wrote to Salon. "That is, not just the same words over and over — but integration of an idea in lots of ways. It builds its own little web of support."

As a hypothetical example, Bowers-Abbott suggested a scenario where she would want to falsely convince Salon that green grapes are a superfood.

"I need to do more than state, 'Green grapes are a superfood' repetitively, I need to work it into conversations," Bowers-Abbott explained. "'Oh, I see grapes are on sale this week, so much nutrition at such a low price!'; 'My dietician has a great superfood recipe that features kale and grapes!'; 'Yes! Green grapes are green! That's the color of superfoods!'"

Dr. Matt Blanchard, a clinical psychologist at New York University, told Salon by email that this kind of immersion does not have to be merely rhetorical. If the purveyors of a Big Lie are shrewd, they can even incorporate it into a target's physical environment.

"You might think I'm kidding, but.... Nothing sells the Big Lie like novelty t-shirts, hats and banners," Blanchard told Salon. "These items are normally associated with sports teams, not life-and-death political issues. But [former President Donald] Trump and his circle have deftly used these items to generate the kind of unbridled loyalty Americans associate with pro football." Blanchard noted that the mob which attempted a coup on January 6th was "at points indistinguishable from a rowdy tailgate party. The banners and hats crucially add an air of silliness to everything. If I can buy a novelty hat about it, can it really be so serious? Or a flag featuring Trump as Rambo? The use of these sports fan items allows them to both be attacking the Capitol building and at the same time, just having good clean fun."

He added, "It's a genius mindf**k. This goofy paraphernalia has confused our response to the riot ever since."

Bandy Lee, an American psychiatrist who edited the book "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President," noted that people embrace outrageous assertions for emotional reasons, and that propagandists play into that as they repeat their narrative.

"Usually, they are trying to find comfort and to avoid pain," Lee wrote to Salon. "This happens in states of lesser health, where one is less inclined to venture into new domains or to seek creative solutions. There is comfort in repetition, and so a people or a nation under duress will gravitate more toward what is repeated to them than what is realistic. Adolf Hitler understood this very well, which is why the American psychologist Walter Langer coined the phrase to describe his method."

Durvasula also speculated that Big Lies benefit from humanity's hierarchical nature, given that "primate groups do tend to organize into tribes with alphas and leaders and hierarchies, and that's us as people." She added that many people are not sufficiently informed about the narcissistic behaviors that are warning signs "that there are people in our midst that lack empathy, have no care for the common good, are grandiose, arrogant, and willing to exploit and manipulate people for solely their own egocentric needs." Instead "a sort of halo effect imbues leaders with presumed expertise and power — when that is not at all the case (most if not all megalomaniacal leaders, despots, tyrants, oligarchs share narcissism/psychopathy as a trait)."

Obviously, most of those who rally around a Big Lie do not do so from a place of deliberate deceptiveness — and they certainly wouldn't call it that. Take the Big Lie being spread by Trump: That the 2020 election was stolen from him. Like Hitler's Big Lie, all of Trump's "evidence" of fraud has been exposed as spurious, from the dozens of lost legal cases (he never once proved fraud in court) to the fact that his own attorney general and Vice President admitted the election had not been stolen. To believe that the election was stolen, one would have to envision a conspiracy including hundreds of Republicans as well as Democrats and absolutely no "smoking gun" leaks — an absurd concept if one tries to break it down logistically. 

"We don't truly 'believe' things, so much as provisionally accept information we find useful."

Yet the lack of substance is precisely the point, as Big Lies are structured to turn attention away from their lack of substance — in most contexts, a person with Trump's personal history and lack of evidence would never be taken seriously — by instead playing on the desires of their targets. 

"Everything we know about the human brain suggests it is composed of numerous systems that interact, overlap, excite, inhibit, and often contradict each other, and may even hide information from consciousness," Blanchard told Salon. "So it comes as no surprise that the act of 'believing' is not just one thing that humans do. Instead, this one word represents a wide range of relationships that humans have with information. We don't truly 'believe' things, so much as provisionally accept information we find useful."

As Blanchard put it, people will weigh information that directly impacts their lives differently than information which seems more abstract. The name of the game is proximity.

"For example, a man who suspects his wife is cheating on him (close proximity) may work feverishly to find the truth, plant cameras in the home, hire a private detective, and so on," Blanchard explained. "But if the topic switches to Joe Biden's election (far proximity) the same man probably won't bother to even check a second news source before he decides what to 'believe.'" This can lead to a "pretty careless" relationship with political information because people do not truly appreciate the long-term consequences.

"We tool-using humans look at every object and wonder, 'How can I use this? What is this good for?'" Blanchard told Salon. "Political information is no different. The Big Lie is no different."

He added, "So most people don't whole-heartedly 'believe' the Big Lie, but they are more than happy to provisionally accept it because... why not? It might be entertaining. It might flatter your identity. It might help you bond with other people in your community. Or it might help you vent some rage."

The popularity of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram further exacerbates these trends because they add new elements of social pressure. An individual who has embraced a Big Lie repeatedly in those public settings will feel a level of personal investment that makes dislodging that much more challenging.

"It was easier to dislodge untruths before social media," Bowers-Abbott told Salon. "In social media, people tend to take public positions. When that position turns out to be wrong, it's embarrassing. And backing down is typically seen as weakness. So they double-down on untrue claims to save face and personal credibility."

She added, "We are way too emotionally attached to being right. It would be better for our culture as a whole to value uncertainty and intellectual humility and curiousity. Those values help us ask questions without the expectation of permanent answers."

Durvasula expressed a similar point, arguing that the best antidote to Big Lies is for people to learn more about critical thinking skills.

"Pushback means education in critical thinking (but given that school board heads are facing death threats over teaching critical thinking — that is not likely to happen)," Durvasula wrote. "It means ending algorithms that only provide confirmatory news and instead people seeing stories and information that provide other points of view (again, not likely to happen), creating safe spaces to have these conversations (who will be the referee?), encouraging civil discourse with those who hold different opinions, teaching people to find common ground (e.g. love of family) even when belief systems are not aligned."

"'Belief' is always predicated on usefulness, and useless beliefs do not survive."

Durvasula was skeptical about the idea that you can persuade someone to abandon a Big Lie through evidence — and Blanchard said the same thing. The problem is that, simply put, a lot of people believe the Big Lie because they want to. It helps them. And the only way to stop the Big Lie, in those situations, is to stop the people spreading it.

"Trump's lies have always been about power," Blanchard wrote to Salon. "He demonstrates his power by lying to your face, and when there are no consequences, his power is seen to be confirmed. The actual content of his lies is of secondary importance." As such, Trump and the other spreaders of the Big Lie will only be discredited in the eyes of their supporters if they face their greatest fear — accountability.

"They must be seen to lose at the ballot box, they must be arrested when they break the law, they must be sued for every defamation, they must be pursued with every legal tool available in an open society," Blanchard explained. "Above all else they must be seen as weak. Only then will their lies lose their usefulness for the millions who once saw something to gain -- personally, psychologically, politically, financially -- in choosing to believe."

He added, "As I said above, 'belief' is always predicated on usefulness, and useless beliefs do not survive."

Lee compared disabusing someone of the falsehoods in a Big Lie to treating regular delusions. One rule: Don't put them on the defensive.

"Confronting them, or presenting facts or evidence, never works," Lee told Salon. "You have to fix the underlying emotional vulnerability that led people to believing it in the first place. For populations, it is usually the pain of not having a place in the world, which socioeconomic inequality exacerbates. Deprivation of health care, education, an ability to make a living, and other avenues for dignity can make a population psychologically vulnerable to those who look to exploit them."

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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