Why Are We So Surprised When People Lie?

December 29, 2022

One of my favorite sophomoric movies is Liar Liar.  The story line is this. Jim Carrey plays an attorney who makes his career lying to protect his clients.  When he lies to his son and then misses his birthday, his son’s birthday wish is that he can’t lie anymore. The 24 hours that follow his son’s wish coming true are hilarious. While the character Jim Carrey plays certainly makes a habit of lying, the movie also serves to illustrate just how often each of us has to make a conscious decision to lie or tell the truth on any given day.  So why is it then that George Santos’ or Sam Bankman-Fried’s lies are so much more appalling than the usual lies we encounter in our daily lives?

The outrage surrounding Sam Bankman-Fried’s lies is more obvious.  They led to the collapse of a company once valued at $32 billion.  The uproar surrounding Congressman-Elect George Santos is more intriguing.  Perhaps it is about the wide-ranging nature of his lies which managed to offend just about everyone.  Or maybe its the fact that he explains them away and then lies some more about what he meant to say when someone calls him out.

Let’s start with his education.  He claimed to have attended and graduated from both Baruch College and NYU.  He also claims to have attended the exclusive prep school Horace Mann.  All three institutions have since debunked his ever having attended there.

Next up is his employment history.  He claims to have worked for both Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. No and no.

Then comes the layered lie of being a Latino-Jew who’s grandparents escaped the holocaust.  Turns out he’s not Jewish and his grandparents are not holocaust survivors. This one certainly starts to explain the outrage. Plenty of people have lied on their resumes about their education and employment history then got caught.  The outcome is usually they lose their job, they are publicly humiliated and then it blows over.  Lying about your religion and linking it to something so horrific as the holocaust breaks some new ground in the lying department though and is deeply offensive not just to Jews, but really everyone and certainly the citizens Santos is supposed to be advocating for in the House of Representatives. Perhaps that is another key to just why so many of us are so offended by Santos.  If an elected member of Congress lies so freely about having descended from Holocaust survivors, what does that say about his character and is he really going to put the interest of his constituents ahead of what he has repeatedly demonstrated to be skewed toward putting his self interest first, no matter the cost.?

As someone who investigates white collar crime, I frequently am engaged just as the lies are starting to collapse on themselves leading questions that can’t easily be answered including “what else have they lied about?”   The term “position of trust” is not just an expression.   It is about the heightened risk that certain individuals pose to an organization.  Their duties, responsibilities, system entitlements and power can add up to a great deal of risk.   Risk that all the controls and audits in the world can’t prevent if that person plans to do the organization harm and decides to put their self-interest and feelings of entitlement ahead of what is the best interests of the organization and its employees.  If there is a silver lining to this story, it is this.

There will always be people like Sam Bankman-Fried and Georges Santos in the world.  I could devote pages and pages just listing the names of the many notorious liars who have come before them. Business partners, customers, employees and yes, elected officials all pose an element of risk because they are each in a position of trust.  Before placing them these positions, it is incumbent on those of us who have some responsibility in filling those rules is to scrutinize their backgrounds.  Perform a background investigation that is proportionate to the potential risk those individuals and business may pose.  If you don’t know what is available and risk-appropriate, it is pretty easy to find someone who does know and to get their advice. Some background investigations raise more questions than they answer.  Those questions deserve follow up.  Organizational culture is made up of individuals and organizations.  It is a reflection of the character, integrity and historical conduct of the people that make up those organizations.  Whether it is the house of representatives, a school or a business, make sure that the felons, liars, impersonators and cultural appropriators are found out before they can do serious harm.

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