Trump certainly isn’t the first politician to lie, but he’s made a reputation of it for a couple of reasons. One, he lies a lot. And two, when he’s called out, he handles it poorly. Here are a few things you shouldn’t do when you’re called out in a lie, unless you want to make things worse.
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We’ve all lied about something and been called out on it. When I was 14, for example, I lied to my mum about wearing makeup. When she found my concealer, what did I do? I completely denied it was mine, which, of course, only made me look even more like a liar.
Politicians are a little different, of course. They lie strategically, and many of Trump’s supporters have even indicated that they flat out don’t care if he lies. Still, the current US administration acts a lot like a 14-year-old who just got busted for wearing makeup. Instead of fessing up to the mistake and moving on, they just keep lying. Even though he gets away with it, Trump’s lies don’t exactly help his approval rating, now at a new low. Here’s where they have gone wrong and what you should do instead, next time you’re caught in a lie.
Don’t Blame Someone Else
After being called out about his outrageous claim that Obama tapped his phones during the 2016 campaign, Trump blamed Fox News for his information.
“You shouldn’t be talking to me,” Trump added. “You should be talking to Fox.”
For their part, Fox said that they knew “of no evidence of any kind that the now-president of the United States was surveilled at any time, any way”.
It isn’t the first time he’s blamed someone else, either. After lying about his electoral college win, calling it the biggest since Reagan, reporters called him out and Trump said someone had given him the information.
It’s easy to throw someone else under the bus when you’re caught lying or spreading false information. Let’s say you lie about a project being finished at work, your boss finds out, and you blame your coworker for suggesting it was done. This might work for someone like Trump, but for the rest of us, this behaviour only makes things worse. At best, your boss will just think you’re dumb, but it’s more likely that you’ll come across as deceitful.
What to Do Instead: This should go without saying, but just own up to it. People respect you more when you admit you’ve made a mistake. When you’re transparent and candid, people are more likely to forgive and respect you. Even if you lied as part of a group, just acknowledge your part and move on. Otherwise, you look even more like a liar and you waste everyone else’s time.
Don’t Fall for the Sunk-Cost Fallacy
Ah, denial. You’ve made it this far, you might as well keep lying, right? That’s the sunk-cost fallacy in action. It’s the tendency to keep going down the same path because you just can’t let go of the time or effort you’ve already wasted on something.
Paul Schoemaker, the research director for the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told Harvard Business Review that many people can’t just cut their losses when they make a mistake. Instead of admitting the failure, they believe there’s more to gain than lose when they continue down the same path. As he puts it, they “make asymmetric evaluation of gains and losses so that losses loom much larger than gains”. In other words, they mistakenly think the backlash of admitting they’re wrong will be worse than the consequences of holding onto the mistake.
Remember when Trump claimed that millions voted illegally in the 2016 US election, citing that as the explanation of why he lost the popular vote? The claim was debunked, of course, but he didn’t let up on it. And when reporters asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer if Trump still believed this, Spicer responded that yes, Trump still maintains this belief because of “studies and evidence” (although they never cite any of these studies). It seems to be a flat out lie, and when called out, the administration only digs into it deeper.
What to Do Instead: Again, Trump gets away with it (and it might even work for him), but you’re not Trump. Don’t fall for the sunk-cost fallacy. Like a lot of cognitive biases, simply being aware of them helps more than anything. But it can also help to put things in perspective when you’re called out on a lie — is it really that bad if you fess up? Maybe, but in most cases, it will cost you a lot more if you keep going down the same path.
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Don’t Get Defensive
Trump wouldn’t let go of this Obama wiretapping thing, even though House Speaker Paul Ryan says there’s no evidence, and the very source he’s named says there’s no evidence. The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee didn’t completely rule out other methods of surveillance, but he did say “there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower“. So, no, Obama did not wiretap Trump Tower.
But the administration won’t let up. They loosened their definition of “Obama” and “wiretapping”, and when reporters asked for evidence, Spicer got defensive and angry.
Again, since many people don’t seem to care whether the new US administration lies or not, they can get away with this and simply declare a war on the media. For the rest of us, not only does a defensive attitude make us look even more untrustworthy, it triggers defensiveness in the other person. In other words, it’s not a very productive way to handle a lie.
What to Do Instead: It’s actually pretty easy to handle being caught in a lie gracefully. The Muse offers some useful advice which essentially boils down to a few steps:
- Step One: Own up to the lie. You know it wasn’t true, and people will have more respect for you if you admit it. They might even be able to trust you again.
- Step Two: Apologise for the lie. And make sure your apology is genuine and simple. “I was dishonest and I’m sorry.” Simple.
- Step Three: Explain yourself. It’s not an excuse, but an explanation for your behaviour. While the person you lied to might still be upset, they will have a better understanding of where you were coming from, the Muse explains, which can help you reconcile.
- Step Four: Come up with a plan. If possible, come up with a plan to fix the situation. Explain how you’ll handle future situations differently.
While these steps don’t guarantee your lie will be forgiven, it’s the best way to save face when you fib. It’s fairly common sense, but pride or panic (or politics) can often get in the way.