But Trump’s political path presents a paradox. Far from slowing his momentum, his deceit seemed only to strengthen his support through the primary and the national election. Now every time a lie is exposed, his support among Republicans does not seem to waver very much. In the wake of the Comey revelations, his average approval rating mainly held at around 40 percent.
This has led many people to ask themselves: How does the former reality-TV star get away with it? How can he tell so many lies and still win support from many Americans?
Journalists and researchers have suggested many answers, from a hyperbiased, segmented media to simple ignorance on the part of GOP voters. But there is another explanation that no one seems to have entertained. It is that Trump is telling “blue lies”—a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen bonds among the members of that group.
Children start to tell selfish lies at about age three, when they discover adults cannot read their minds: I didn’t steal that toy. Daddy said I could. He hit me first. At around age seven, they begin to tell white liesmotivated by feelings of empathy and compassion: That’s a good drawing. I love socks for Christmas. You’re funny.
Blue lies are a different category altogether, simultaneously selfish and beneficial to others—but only to those who belong to your group. As University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee explains, blue lies fall in between generous white lies and selfish “black” ones. “You can tell a blue lie against another group,” he says, which makes it simultaneously selfless and self-serving. “For example, you can lie about your team’s cheating in a game, which is antisocial but helps your team.”
In a 2008 study of seven, nine and 11-year-old children, Lee and his colleagues found that children become more likely to endorse and tell blue lies as they grow older. For example, given an opportunity to lie to an interviewer about rule breaking in the selection process of a school chess team, many were quite willing to do so, older kids more than younger ones. The children telling this lie did not stand to selfishly benefit; they were doing it on behalf of their school. This line of research finds that black lies drive people apart, white lies draw them together and blue lies pull some people together while driving others away.
For millions and millions of Americans, climate change is a hoax, Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor and immigrants cause crime. Whether they truly believe those falsehoods or not is debatable—and possibly irrelevant. The research to date suggests that they see those lies as useful weapons in a tribal us-against-them competition that pits the “real America” against those who would destroy it.
It is in blue lies that the best and worst in humanity can come together. They reveal our loyalty, our ability to cooperate, and our capacity to care about the people around us and to trust them. At the same time, blue lies display our predisposition to hate and dehumanize outsiders and our tendency to delude ourselves.
This hints at the solution, which starts with the idea that we must appeal to the best in one another. While that may sound awfully idealistic, the applications of that insight are very concrete. In a new paper in the journal Advances in Political Psychology, D. J. Flynn and Brendan Nyhan, both at Dartmouth College, along with Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter in England, summarize everything science knows about “false and unsupported beliefs about politics.”
They recommend a cluster of prosaic techniques, such as presenting information as imagery or graphics instead of text. The best combination appears to be graphics with stories. But this approach runs up against another scientific insight, one that will be frustrating to those who would oppose Trump’s lies: who tells the story matters. Study after study shows that people are much more likely to be convinced of a fact when it “originates from ideologically sympathetic sources,” as the paper says—and it helps a lot if those sources look and sound like them.
In short, it is white conservatives who must call out Trump’s lies if they are to be stopped.