A Terrific Article On Donald Trump And The Nature of Lying From Scientific American

Author and blogger Jeremy Adam Smith has written a fascinating article on the three dimensions of lying which helps to explain the willingness of so many people to embrace things that Donald Trump says that are patently untrue.  I highly recommend this piece.  It has implications far beyond our current president.


How the Science of “Blue Lies” May Explain Trump’s Support

They’re a very particular form of deception that can build solidarity within groups

Donald Trump tells lies.

His deceptions and misleading statements are easy to unmask. In the latest example—after hundreds of well-documented lies—FBI director James Comey told Congress this week that there is “no information that supports” Trump’s claim that President Obama tapped his phone.

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 national election. Now, every time a lie is exposed, his support among Republicans doesn’t seem to waver very much. In the wake of the Comey revelations, his average approval rating held at 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 hyper-biased, 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 the bonds among the members of that group.

Children start to tell selfish lies at about age three, as 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 lies motivated 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—the first of its kind—Lee and 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 didn’t 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.

Around the world, children grow up hearing stories of heroes who engage in deception and violence on behalf of their in-groups. In Star Wars, for example, Princess Leia lies about the location of the “secret rebel base.” In the Harry Potter novels (spoiler alert!), the entire life of double-agent Severus Snape is a lie, albeit a “blue” one, in the service of something bigger than himself.

That explains why most Americans seem to accept that our intelligence agencies lie in the interests of national security, and we laud our spies as heroes. From this perspective, blue lies are weapons in intergroup conflict. As Swedish philosopher Sissela Bok once said, “Deceit and violence—these are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings.” Lying and bloodshed are often framed as crimes when committed inside a group—but as virtues in a state of war.

This research—and those stories—highlight a difficult truth about our species: We are intensely social creatures, but we’re prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be prosocial—compassionate, empathic, generous, honest—in their groups, and aggressively antisocial toward out-groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence—and socially sanctioned deceit.

“People condone lying against enemy nations, and since many people now see those on the other side of American politics as enemies, they may feel that lies, when they recognize them, are appropriate means of warfare,” says George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist and one of the country’s leading scholars of the presidency.
If we see Trump’s lies not as failures of character but rather as weapons of war, then we can come to see why his supporters might see him as an effective leader. From this perspective, lying is a feature, not a bug, of Trump’s campaign and presidency.
Research by Alexander George Theodoridis, Arlie Hochschild, Katherine J. Cramer, Maurice Schweitzer, and others have found that this kind of lying seems to thrive in an atmosphere of anger, resentment, and hyper-polarization. Party identification is so strong that criticism of the party feels like a threat to the self, which triggers a host of defensive psychological mechanisms.

For millions and millions of Americans, climate change is a hoax, Hillary Clinton ran a 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’s in blue lies that the best and worst in humanity can come together. They reveal our loyalty, our ability to cooperate, 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 each other. 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 of Dartmouth College, along with Jason Reifler, 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 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.

What can the rest of us do in the meantime? We must make accuracy a goal, even when the facts don’t fit our emotional reality. We start by verifying information, seeking out different and competing sources, cultivating a diverse social network, sharing information with integrity—and admitting when we fail. That’s easy. But the most important and difficult thing we can do right now, suggests this line of research, is to put some critical distance between us and our groups—and so lessen the pressure to go along with the herd.

Donald Trump lies, yes, but that doesn’t mean rest of us, his supporters included, need to follow his example.

An Exchange With Times Union Reporter, Wendy Liberatore

The following are recent emails between Wendy Liberatore and myself.

From: John Kaufmann < >
Date: Tuesday, May 2, 2017 at 9:31 AM
To: “Liberatore, Wendy D” < >
Subject: Survey


I assume you have read my piece on the Skidmore Survey.  I was wondering if you see any journalistic issue about the paper publishing a piece encouraging your readers to participate in a survey whose purpose is misrepresented?



From:     Liberatore, Wendy D []
Sent:       Tuesday, May 02, 2017 6:29 PM
To:  John Kaufmann
Subject:  Re: Survey

Dear John,

The survey is an educational exercise that the community was asked to participate in. The posting was intended as a general announcement to the public that they could, if they chose, participate.

 A link was posted, not the survey itself.

 There was no intention to brainwash, mislead or persuade readers on the charter issue.

 As emotions run high on this subject, I doubt that anyone who voluntarily took the survey changed their position on the charter.

 By the way, SUCCESS’s stand on the charter has also been posted to the blog.

 As you know, a blog is not a strict journalistic vehicle and often descends into opinion. Of course, I avoid espousing mine, as that would be crossing a journalistic line.

 Thanks for reaching out,


First I appreciate Ms. Liberatore’s willingness to not only engage but to allow me to post her response on this blog.

The great Japanese film maker, Akira Kurasawa, made a movie called Rashomon.  The film is about a disturbing incident and involves the retelling of the event from the eyes of the three people who experienced it.  Each narrative is both wildly different and fully consistent with the particular character who retells it.

 Ms. Liberatore and I are addressing the same “survey” and each of us viewed it entirely differently.  I am not sure what this means about either Ms. Liberatore or myself but I offer the following observations.

Ms. Liberatore appears to consider the survey as simply a student exercise.  It appears that in that context she sees little problem in the fact that the readers of her newspaper who may have participated in the survey were misled by its authors as to the true nature of what the survey was. 

My view is that this kind of misrepresentation is inappropriate.  I know that at least one person would not have taken this survey if they had been aware of its true nature.  That person is, of course, me.  It should be no surprise then that I am particularly troubled that a newspaper would be an enabler.

 Ms. Liberatore asserts with certitude that all the individuals behind this survey had no intention to, among other things, “mislead” or “persuade.”

In my blog I was careful to avoid offering an opinion as to the motivations of the people behind this survey.  I have no way of knowing for sure what that motivation was.  What I do know is that the “survey” met all the criteria for what a push poll is and that whatever the intentions of the authors, the design was consistent with in effect spinning the participant  to what in this case was support for a charter change.  I offered that a person with Mr. Mann’s credentials should have been aware of this potential problem.

 I appreciate that Ms. Liberatore offers a qualified assessment of the impact of the survey when she writes that she “doubts” anyone was affected by it.  I do not know whether I am being unfair to her but this seems to agree with the previous paragraph of the potential for problems.  In fact, given that my blog apparently killed it very shortly after it was publicly offered, I agree with Ms. Liberatore that it probably had little impact.

 I am not clear about the significance of the distinction between publishing a link to the survey as compared to actually publishing the survey on the paper’s website.

 It is the nature of this blog to encourage public discussions that takes the form of courteous exchanges.  Ms. Liberatore, in her role for the Capital District’s largest newspaper, is an important figure in our community.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have engaged her and hope that she will find the time to do so either further on this topic or on other issues in the future.

SUCCESS Asks Council To Monitor Charter Committee Spending

[JK:I received this release from SUCCESS]

At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, members of SUCCESS urged the Mayor and Commissioners to establish a specific process to ensure that the $20,000 in taxpayers’ money that will go to the Charter Review Committee is spent strictly according to state regulations.

Video link: http://saratogaspringsny.swagit.com/play/05022017-1245

SUCCESS is a non-partisan group established in 2006 that supports Saratoga Springs’ commission form of government.

State law requires that the city provide funds to the Charter Review Committee. These funds are to be spent only to educate voters about their charter proposal.  Importantly, taxpayer funds may not be spent to advocate for the passage of the charter referendum.

At several Charter Review Committee meetings, however, there has been:

*confusion about what could be considered educational and eligible for public funding and what would be considered advocacy and need to be paid for with private funds.

*pushback by some members of the committee who felt they should be able to use taxpayer money to advocate for their city manager charter proposal despite the state law prohibition.

*a political type marketing plan handed out by Vice Chair Pat Kane entitled the “Budget for Marketing/Campaign for Saratoga Springs Ballot Referendum.” This campaign included a list of possible materials and activities the committee might consider in what he described as essentially a political campaign.  Included on the list were items such as bumper stickers, t-shirts, lawn signs, and robo calls.

SUCCESS reminded the City Council that in 2006 Commissioner of Accounts John Franck and then Commissioner of Finance Matt McCabe refused to pay for a “Voter’s Guide” sent out by the charter committee that year.  John Franck called the piece “nothing more than a propaganda piece.” In the end, a member of that charter committee had to pay for the mailing.

SUCCESS handed the City Council members copies of newspaper articles from 2006 that described why the “Guide” was not paid for with city funds. The articles indicated that the so-called “mailgate” materials were forwarded to the US Postal Inspector, the FBI ,and the New York State Comptroller for review.

In the recent Saratogian article covering Tuesday night’s meeting, [“Spa City group urges officials to eye charter committee spending”] Professor Bob Turner, Chair of the Charter Review Committee, suggested the Council had refused to pay for the 2006 mailer merely because they “didn’t like the tone.”  Yet the mailer contained such phrases as “If the proposal passes, we will have — at long last — a government with true checks and balances.”

SUCCESS believes all parties involved would prefer to avoid what happened in 2006.  We therefore call upon the City Council to

  1. Establish and communicate a specific process to evaluate Charter Review Committee materials that will be paid for with public dollars before they are printed or distributed to potential voters.
  2. Make clear who on the Charter Review Committee will be responsible for paying for efforts that are determined by the City Council to be advocacy.



Charter Review Commissioner Altamari Calls For Independent Internal Auditor

Jeff Altamari, a member of the Charter Review Commission, issued a white paper on their behalf.  The paper focused on the need for an internal auditor for the city.

Mr. Altamari has an impressive resume.  He identifies himself as a retired Fortune 500 executive financial officer and a graduate of Cornell University.  He holds an M.S. degree in accounting. He was a member of the NYS Society of CPAs as well.  In addition, he was Mayor Joanne Yepsen’s campaign treasurer.

On May 1st the Times Union published an article on his white paper.   [Link To TU Article].  Under the provocative headline, “Former Financial Officer Says City Vulnerable To Fraud,” the reporter, Wendy Liberatore, wrote, “…Altamari warned that going without an independent professional internal auditor ‘opens the city to inefficiency, abuse and potential fraud.’”

So I was prompted to read his paper.  Interestingly enough, in contrast to the TU story, the paper was a long and, to this reader, pretty dense treatise.  Nothing of the excitement in the TU piece.  Link To Paper  It was just too abstract for me.  I had trouble following it.  With that in mind I contacted Mr. Altamari by email and he suggested I call him, which I did.

As some background, the New York State Comptroller is supposed to oversee the integrity of public institutions receiving New York money.  I had gone to their website and looked at the last audit they did of Saratoga Springs. The audit was done for the period of 2009 to 2011 and was submitted to the city in 2013.  The following excerpt begins the report:

A top priority of the Office of the State Comptroller is to help local government officials manage Government resources efficiently and effectively and, by so doing, provide accountability for tax dollars spent to support government operations. The Comptroller oversees the fiscal affairs of local governments statewide, as well as compliance with relevant statutes and observance of good business practices. This fiscal oversight is accomplished, in part, through our audits, which identify opportunities for improving operations and City Council governance. Audits also can identify strategies to reduce costs and to strengthen controls intended to safeguard local government assets.

The audit of which this was a part identified only a minor problem with the handling of city finances.  I forwarded this to Mr. Altamari prior to our conversation.  It seemed to me, at the time, that this answered many of the concerns expressed in his piece.

In our conversation Altamari noted that the audit was completed back in 2011 and that he felt this kind of auditing needed to be ongoing.  He subsequently spoke to a representative from the Comptroller’s office who indicated that there is no routine auditing by their office.  He was also told that having an independent internal audit function was a good idea.  (see below).

Altamari recommends that the city have an audit committee.  This is a common tool used by private corporations for the purpose of more effective oversight.  I raised this with Michele Madigan.  She explained that she currently goes over the audit the city does each year with the city attorney but it would probably benefit her to include some others to both assist her and provide even greater transparency.

I had trouble understanding fully what he meant by an internal audit.   Currently the city identifies the Commissioner of Finance as the city’s internal auditor just as it identifies the Commissioner of Accounts as the city’s assessor.  In fact, the role of carrying out the internal auditing function is carried out by Christine Gillmett-Brown who is the Director of Finance as similarly assessment is actually done by a member of John Franck’s staff.

Ms. Gillmett-Brown was originally hired by Ken Klotz as his deputy when he was elected  Commissioner Finance in 1996. Interestingly she was a Republican whereas Klotz was a Democrat.  Subsequently, under Commissioner of Finance Matt McCabe, a civil service position of Director of Finance was created for her.  There were a number of reasons for this change.  For one thing the work required to actually maintain the finances of the city along with preparing budgets, and overseeing the other duties of staff was just too much for one person, the Deputy.  In addition the Deputy is not only a quasi political position but deputies leave when the Commissioner is defeated in an election or retires.  The creation of the Director of Finance positon allowed for continuity.  It also greatly benefitted the city because Ms. Gillmett-Brown was universally respected.  She has served the city for decades.

In her role as the internal auditor, she investigates accusations of misuse of city funds.  The only conflict of interest that would arise would be if she were asked to investigate the finance office.

In my conversation with Mr. Altamari and in his paper, he envisions a much broader role for the internal auditor.  It would be pro-active in nature.  It would involve issues of efficiency and waste as well as fraud.

In order to help me better understand the concept I asked him to lay out a scenario of how this would work.  He offered the idea of the city hiring an outside consultant.  This person would do an overall assessment of the city to identify areas of concern.  He/she would submit a suggested plan to the city for a few areas that looked like they would benefit from a detailed analysis.  This might be, for example, how the city handles inventory.  What items should merit being inventoried?  In what form should the inventory be maintained?  Who should maintain the inventory?  Etc.  He also suggested that a comparison could be done regarding staffing with similar municipalities to asses productivity.

I expressed concern about the cost/benefit of this kind of work.  Mr. Altamari was sure that it would more than pay for itself in greater efficiency and the elimination of waste.

We agreed that all this was considerably less dramatic than the headline of the Times Union suggested.

Most significantly, this kind of change was not dependent on charter change.  No matter what happens with the charter, something like this could be enacted by the council.

He also expressed his concern about having a non-credentialed person overseeing the city’s finances (an elected commissioner-this would involve charter change).

In my conversation with Commissioner Madigan she pointed out that the technical part of the job is handled by Finance Director Gillmett-Brown who is civil service and has been doing this for seventeen years under Republicans and Democrats.  The Commissioner and her Deputy’s  job  is to manage the staff and to do the budgets.  Ms. Madigan pointed out that budgets are really policy documents.  What the city decides to spend money on has to do with its priorities.  It is her role, working  with data from the Finance Director, to develop a budget that is the result of consensus building with the other Commissioners on the council.

I think I am being fair to Mr. Altamari to say that the threat he identified is not that he expects some calamitous financial scandal to erupt.  The annual audit that exists is a reasonable vehicle to deal with major threats.  On the other hand, the potential for on-going waste and petty theft can have a serious impact in the long run and he feels his suggestions would address this.

I think his ideas are thoughtful and worth considering.  In my conversations with Commissioner Madigan she seemed to share the same assessment.

Mr. Altamari’s Email as Referenced Above

From: Jeffrey Altamari <jeffaltamari@gmail.com> Date: May 2, 2017 at 3:36:46 PM EDT To: John Kaufmann <john.kaufmann21@gmail.com> Subject: Re: Comparing the duties of an internal auditor with the role of the New York State Comptroller

Yesterday I put a call into the NYS Comptroller’s Office to make inquiry about the nature of municipal audits in NYS. Today, at 2:15p, my call was returned by a very helpful auditor from the Comptroller’s office with over ten years of experience. During our conversation he made the following points in response to my questions:


  • Municipalities are NOT on a cycle for visits from Comptroller auditors. The decision on whom to audit could be triggered by:
    • an irregularity noted in the annual financial statements filed with NYS  that might warrant further follow-up
    • an event brought to the Comptroller’s attention that might warrant immediate attention such as a large fraud or break-down in internal controls
    • identification of a material risk factor in a municipality
    • the fact that a municipality has not been audited for a long time
  • The focus is usually very specific and focused on procedural controls. As an example, this auditor visited the Saratoga Springs FD a few years ago to see that they followed State procedures and controls. This was part of an audit initiative of several municipalities with regard to fire safety and State procedures. He was emphatic that no other examination of anything else in the City government occurred
  • Our regional Comptroller’s office in Glens Falls looks at all municipal financial statements in its jurisdiction, but would only consider an audit initiative if it saw an irregularity based on an analytical review.


The gentleman I spoke with agreed that the examinations the Comptroller’s office perform, when they do visit a municipality, are akin to what an internal auditor might perform. But for any municipality these audits are so infrequent (our last in 2011 as noted previously) and highly specific when they are performed, that they should never be considered a substitute for a strong internal audit function. In fact, he stated, the Comptroller’s Office advises municipalities that they should always maintain a strong internal audit function as assurance for a robust internal control environment.


Jeff Altamari

518-428-6235 iPhone