Exploring the paradox of why colossal, outlandish lies can often be easier to believe than smaller mistruths.

By Tanvi Mishra and Nicholas Jaramillo
01/27/2021 • 05:06 AM EST


Crowd of Trump supporters gather in front of the Capitol on January 6th. Jon Cherry/Getty Images.

On January 6th, 2021, on a 52-acre park just south of the White House, President Donald Trump delivered a speech at the “Save America Rally” to a crowd of supporters,[1] where he declared the 2020 presidential election had been rigged and he had won by a landslide.[2] An hour after the rally ended, the crowd of thousands of Americans walked up Pennsylvania Ave, forced their way through police lines, and stormed the U.S. Capitol.[1]

The hollowness and magnitude of the false claim[3] elevated it to the status of the Big Liesee definition - telling and repeating a lie so bold and audacious that people will be inclined to think there must be some truth to it.
, or in its German equivalent "Die Große Lüge," a propaganda technique perhaps most famous for being a tool of the Third Reich. The paradox of the Big Lie is that a falsehood so outlandish and colossal in nature can actually be more, not less, likely to be believed. Hitler theorized in Mein Kampf that most people's own sense of shame for telling big lies makes them morally inclined to believe there must be some truth to it.

"... the magnitude of a lie always contains a certain factor of credibility, since the great masses of the people, in the very bottom of their hearts, tend to be corrupted rather than consciously and purposely evil. And therefore they more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a little one, since they themselves lie in little things, but would be ashamed of lies that were too big. Such a falsehood will never enter their heads, and they will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous misrepresentation in others; yes, even when enlightened on a subject, they will long doubt and waver, and continue to accept at least one of these causes as true. Therefore something, even the most insolent lie, will always remain and stick."[4]

And even when those same people are presented with the most indisputable of facts, once the lie is uttered, it can be difficult to dislodge. Hannah Arendt, the famed political theorist and Holocaust survivor, asserts that even after someone realizes a piece of information is a lie, the permanent effect of being unable to believe much else sets in, as if the lie takes up mental real estate that must first be vacated before the truth can take root.[5]

The Big Lie can also make small, supporting lies seem more plausible. These smaller lies help reinforce the credibility of the Big Lie and create a channel of facile manipulation that is hard to reverse. In the words of Zachary J. Jacobson, "Like a pyramid, the Big Lie organized a configuration of smaller lies underneath... Swallow the big pill, and the rest would follow."[6]

Just as significant as the boldness of the lie is the charisma of the peddler. In the realm of human psychology, a person’s susceptibility to lies through emotional appeal is termed the affect heuristicsee definition - a mental shortcut in which people make decisions that are heavily influenced by their current emotions, rather than through logical reasoning or deliberation.
. The alluring and sensationalist nature of fiction promotes a strong emotional response which severely hinders our ability to think rationally."[8] In other words, intense emotions are equated to genuineness; the more emotional intensity present, the more we are inclined to think it must be true.”[7]

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the purveyors of the Big Lie believe it or not. As the events of January 6th 2021 demonstrated, if those delivering the lie appear to believe it and continue to deliver the lie with enough conviction, it will be effective.

References
1. "How a Presidential Rally Turned Into a Capitol Rampage". The New York Times. Published: January 12, 2021.

2. "Donald Trump Speech "Save America"". Rev.com. Published: January 06, 2021.

3. "AP FACT CHECK: Trump's claims of vote rigging are all wrong". AP News. Published: December 03, 2020.

4. "You Know Who Else Used Words to Make A Point?". Slate.com. Published: September 04, 2012.

5. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. World Publishing Company. Published: 1962.
7. B.E. Turvey, J.O. Savino, A. Coronado Mares, False Allegations: Investigative and Forensic Issues in Fraudulent Reports of Crime. Academic Press. Published: 2018.
8. "The American Abyss". The New York Times. Published: January 09, 2021.