My first regular paid writing gig was as a weekly sports columnist for one of those free newspapers they hand out on the subway. One week, I made a boneheaded error, referring to the Philadelphia Eagles as an AFC team.
Irate reader emails pointing out that the Eagles play in the NFC poured in, and I expected as much. What I didn’t anticipate were the accusations of mendacity. “Why did you lie?” I remember one guy writing. “Did you think we wouldn’t notice?”
Why did he assume I had intentionally attempted to bamboozle? What did he think was my goal?
Not every error or inaccuracy is a lie. A lie implies an intention to mislead, to convince others of something you know to be false. It seems as if we’ve forgotten that in an era when factual certainty is only a few keystrokes away. We also seem to have forgotten that the truth isn’t always clear-cut: Reasonable people can look at the same set of facts and draw dissimilar conclusions. Witnesses remember conversations differently. Yet when we see a discrepancy, we are quick to infer duplicitous intent.
Consider the recent flap over Elizabeth Warren’s ouster from her first teaching job. When school board records emerged describing her departure as a “resignation”—not, as she has said, pregnancy discrimination—some were quick to accuse her of lying, even though all kinds of involuntary job separations are recorded as “resignations.” (Surely you’ve known a colleague who departed abruptly to “spend more time with his family,” that thinnest of reputation-preserving euphemisms.)
An early (and meme-able) example was South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson’s shouting “You lie!” during Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union speech, after the president said the Affordable Care Act wouldn’t benefit undocumented immigrants. Fact-checkers had to pore over the 1,000-page bill to resolve the dispute, and even then their verdict took a lot of explaining. No wonder Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want Facebook to get into that game.
That was 10 years ago; back in those decorous days, Wilson apologized for the outburst. Today we’re quicker to accuse one another, even when it seems clear the “liar” is just making an error. When Joe Biden incorrectly referred to himself as having been vice president during the 2018 Parkland shooting, some observers chalked this up as one of his many “gaffes.”
But plenty of others called it a lie, or at least hinted it was intentional, as if Biden were trying to claim credit he didn’t deserve.
Humans are notoriously bad at sussing out other people’s motivations, but that doesn’t stop us from making assumptions. When Hillary Clinton said she didn’t send classified emails from her personal server—a claim that turned out to be untrue—was it deceit or forgetfulness? Without reading her mind, we can’t say. That didn’t stop people from calling her a liar.
President Donald Trump says many outlandish and inaccurate things, but without insight into his intentions, journalists have been hesitant to call them “lies.” The Washington Post fact-checkers keep a running tally of the president’s untrue statements—he’s currently on pace for about 22 per day—and even they prefer the term “false and misleading statements.” If Trump really believes the false things he says—that climate change is a Chinese hoax, that his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s, that his call with the president of Ukraine was “perfect”—then they are delusions, not lies. (It’s up to you whether you’d prefer a mendacious politician or a deluded one.)
One reason we’re quick to assume that an incorrect or disputed statement is a malevolent lie is the human impulse to impute bad intentions or character flaws to other people and excuse our own foibles as shaped by circumstances. When we interrupt a colleague, it’s because it’s the only way to get a word in. When we’re interrupted, the other person must be a credit-stealing narcissist.
This self-serving human tendency—essentially, a lie we tell ourselves—is so common that psychologists have given it a powerful name: the fundamental attribution error. It’s so ingrained that we practice it with whole groups of people: When we check our phones during family dinner, it’s because there might be an important work email. When our teenager does it, it’s because Gen Z has a minuscule attention span.
We even do it with inanimate objects. Social psychologist Heidi Grant points to research drawing on car insurance claims. “The telephone pole was approaching,” wrote one driver. “I was attempting to swerve out of its way when it struck my front end.” Another motorist argued that “a hedge sprang up, obscuring my vision.” Must be a brutal commute between the sentient telephone poles and aggressive hedges.
I’m not wild about terms like selective memory, willful blindness, or motivated reasoning, since they seem to imply that we want to be blinkered. In fact, we’re unaware of what we’re doing. We see ourselves as well-intentioned and objective, and the truth as verifiable and concrete. As in the old X-Files tagline, we believe the truth is out there; some fact-checker just has to find it.
In many cases, that’s possible. But in almost every case involving human intentions, it’s far slipperier.
And that is the problem. We mean well, but too often we don’t consider that others do too. While most well-socialized people will occasionally tell white lies, self-deceiving lies and, when tempted by anxiety or fear, self-preserving lies, it’s pretty rare for people to assert something they know to be false.
If you see lies everywhere, you’re probably mistaken. And that’s no lie.