Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth: Part 2—The Destructive Nature of Alternative Facts (i.e. Lies)

Check out Part 1 of this series where we discuss the logical fallacy of believing you are entitled to your opinion.

While some leaders use their opinion as a weapon against critical thinking, there’s a dangerous new trend that reclassifies opinions as alternative facts. Just as you are not entitled to your opinion, you are not entitled to blatantly lie or recreate reality to better suit your convenience.

Alternative facts go beyond the concept of post-truth where “facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” While it may be dismissed in favor of a passion-based sentiment, at least post-truths involve a comprehension of the facts.

The concept of alternative facts became more prevalent when Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd questioned statements made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer concerning the size of the turnout for Trump’s inauguration. When asked, Counselor to the President Kellyann Conway told Todd that Spicer was only offering alternative facts, to which Todd replied, “Alternative facts are just falsehoods.”

If audience size seems like a minor lie, you are only half wrong. Sure, there are more serious issues to lie about, but as research shows, a lie (even a small one) can have destructive effects. For now, let’s forgo the ethical argument, or the Golden Rule, or the simple societal norm that lying is bad. Instead, focus on how lies impact your employees.

According to Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert, people see the world in two steps. First, for a brief moment, we hold the lie as true: We must accept it so as to understand it. For instance, if the President were to erroneously say, “I have been on [Time magazine’s] cover, like, 14 or 15 times. I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time magazine,” we must for a second accept that he holds this record. Only then do we go to the second step—accepting or rejecting it.

While the first step happens automatically, the second step involves actively deciding whether or not to believe the statement. And too often, this mentally strenuous verification does not occur. As Gilbert writes, human minds, “when faced with shortages of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, may fail to unaccept the ideas that they involuntarily accept during comprehension.”

Based on our limited cognitive resources, when we fail to unaccept an idea, our minds have become so overwhelmed with (potentially) false statements that we stop trying to sift through to the truth. The improbability of the statement is irrelevant; with time, our brains give up trying to figure out what is true.

It’s the bed-of-nails principle: If you step on one nail, it hurts you; if you step on a thousand nails, no single one stands out, and you’re fine.—John Oliver

Since people become more susceptible to lies when they are told with higher frequency, it may sound easier to lead through lies—who doesn’t want to say whatever they want without having to defend it? Of course you will lose all credibility and quickly build a reputation of fraudulence that delegitimizes both you and your organization, but think of the time you’ll save trying to persuade the masses.

Sarcasm aside, once a group is more receptive to lies, they are more receptive to everyone’s lies, not just yours. If you aren’t so bold as to tell outright lies but do not want to be bothered with the fact-checkable truth, in Part 3 of this series we’ll discuss the effects of sprinkling your argument with a few untruths, otherwise known as paltering.

 

The Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth series:

Part 1—You are NOT Entitled to Your Opinion

Part 2—The Destructive Nature of Alternative Facts (i.e. Lies)

Part 3—Deceiving with Fact-based Lies

Part 4— 10 Ways to Create a Culture of Trust