Home Concepts Communication How Lies and Misinformation Undermine Trust in Experts, Leaders and Scientific Facts

How Lies and Misinformation Undermine Trust in Experts, Leaders and Scientific Facts

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Kevin Weitz, Psy.D. and William Bergquist, Ph.D.

Every day, you are subjected to hundreds of people trying to sell you a product, a trip, or an idea; persuade you they’re right; convince you to vote their way; make you angry about some injustice; make you afraid of some outside danger; or seduce or charm you into doing what they want. (Aronson, 2018).

Skillful liars are dangerous people. (Danesi, 2020).

As in previous essays, it is important to note that this essay is apolitical – the authors have no political agenda. Our reference to specific individuals is purely for purposes of providing practical examples to make the concepts more tangible. We understand that this is a delicate balancing act.

As we have presented in the essay on Conspiracy theories, thousands of people believe bazaar, concocted stories that profoundly influence their behaviors – to the point of justifying violence. Often, as in the conspiracy theories concerning vaccines, fluoride in water or the notion of liberal pedophiles operating a child sex ring in the basement of a pizza parlor, the belief in these fabrications can lead to placing the believers at risk, as well as those innocently involved in the fabrication or conspiracy.

In this essay we focus on the psychology of how influential people use language to propagate misinformation and lies for their own benefit and how it is possible that so many people actually believe them. One could argue that little “white” lies are mostly benign – the (sort of) half humorous example of a spouse asking “how do I look in these new jeans” – the answer is always “you look great”!

But when lying is used to manipulate and deceive to the detriment of others – even entire societies – lies and misinformation take on a Machiavellian purpose and outcome. The adjective “Machiavellian is typically used in reference to ruthless liars, deceivers, scammers, and swindlers” (Danesi. 2020). As in the fostering of conspiracy theories, intentional lying can undermine truth and destroy trust in experts and leaders attempting to provide honest information and advice in order to guide decision-making amongst society in general.

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