George Santos and the fascinating psychology of compulsive liars

 (EPA)
(EPA)

Anyone who’s taken a passing look at the news lately knows it’s been a bad week for George Santos. When the 34-year-old representative from New York’s 3rd congressional district flipped the seat in the November midterms, it was celebrated by Republicans as a rare and significant victory. This was a once-safe Democratic seat, where people voted for Joe Biden by a double-digit margin in 2020. How did Santos do it? As his house of cards comes tumbling down, the answer seems to be: By fictionalizing himself into the perfect candidate.

Santos now stands accused of lying about the entire contents of his résumé, including where he went to college, and even where he went to high school; whether he is married to a man or a woman (he spoke of a husband in his campaign bio, but records only appear to show a marriage and divorce to a woman); how his mother died (not in 9/11, it turns out); whether his grandmother was in the Holocaust and indeed whether any of his family is actually Jewish (it appears they are all actually Brazilian Catholics); and where his money came from. He even seems to have claimed he was running an imaginary animal charity. These alleged lies range from the very serious to the comically absurd, from the personal to the professional, and from the clearly self-serving to the head-scratchingly strange. There is a feeling of compulsion to them.

And so many questions now hang over Santos’s head that most of his fellow Republicans have ceased to defend him. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told CNN that he “always” had questions about the congressman’s résumé on Tuesday. Representative Nick LaLota — a fellow New York Republican — and six others are calling for Santos’s campaign funds to be frozen by the Department of Justice and by the Federal Elections Commission. Former GOP representative Adam Kinzinger just started a petition to boot Santos out of office. Unsurprisingly, Democratic reactions have been even more fiery: Ritchie Torres, the Democratic representative for New York’s 15th congressional district who works just down the road from Santos, wrote an NBC op-ed on Tuesday morning titled “My new co-worker George Santos is a distraction and a danger to democracy” that called Santos a “liar, cheat and fraud” and “deceitful to the core” within the first two sentences.

Despite all this, Wednesday morning brought news that Santos had been awarded two seats on committees in the newly Republican-controlled house. The man who appears to have lied about his entire professional background will now sit on the Committee on Small Business and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. According to CNN Politics, however, Santos’s original ambitions had been much more wide-ranging: “Santos had privately lobbied GOP leaders to serve on two more high-profile committees, one overseeing the financial sector and another on foreign policy, but top Republicans rejected that pitch as some chairmen balked at adding him to their panels.”

Political analysts might have a lot to say about the Santos case — but what do psychologists say about people who lie as much as this particular congressman appears to have done?

Drew Curtis has dedicated his professional life to understanding why people lie. The licensed psychologist oversees the Curtis Deception Lab at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, and specifically investigates “pathological lying, deception within psychotherapy and health care professions” and psychopathy. Along with his research partner Christian Hart, he published the book Pathological Lying: Theory, Research and Practice last year.

Drew is careful to say that he would never diagnose someone from afar or without their consent, because that would be an abdication of his professional duties as a psychologist. But when I ask him about the Santos case, he says it’s important to consider that there is a difference between pathological liars and prolific liars. Pathological liars can’t help themselves — they have a compulsion to lie and they feel deep remorse afterwards, even if they’re unable to stop the behavior. Prolific liars are people who lie to get ahead, sometimes outrageously, and who never feel remorse. These people usually have traits of psychopathy or personality disorders: “It’s part of seeing the other people [around them] as objects in the world and navigating them for their own gain and their own interests.”

Politicians are in an interesting position when it comes to lying, says Curtis, because recent research shows that “politicians who are honest are less likely to get re-elected.” Yet polls during the last presidential election also showed that “the number one thing that most Americans look for during the presidential debates and elections is honesty — beyond competence, beyond anything else, it’s honesty.” Time and time again, he says, they find that “liar” is the most damaging label that can be flung at a politician, the lowest-ranked trait out of over 400 possible traits presented to the public. And time and time again, those same members of the public re-elect politicians who lie the most.

People travel from states away to see Drew Curtis at his lab in Texas, seeking help for their lying behavior, saying things like “my marriage is about to end” or “my relationship with my mom is strained and I’m doing this for her”. But of course, the people he treats are only the people who experience some sort of comeuppance: “If the lies are serving them a benefit, I doubt it even crosses the radar of ‘I need help for this’ until those lies start impairing their job or their family life or relationships.”

We all lie sometimes — Curtis brings up the idea of “putting your best foot forward” during a first date as a fairly harmless lying game we’ve probably all engaged in — but only some of us will encounter prolific or pathological liars. And when we’re on the receiving end of those people’s lies, it can be very seductive. “Humans have a propensity to enjoy stories,” he says. “And I think this is our fault on the other side, engaging with pathological liars. So if you think of the most exaggerated story you could think of, even if you knew it was false — if I told you right now there are 15 alligators outside of my office and I’m about to go slay them with an ax, cut their heads off and use them to help me dissect frogs, and then I’m gonna take the frog intestines and make a hat, or something like that, that was just so obviously false to you — I think you would have a hard time not keeping interest in that. I would get your attention. So, the novelty of such exaggerations often gets our attention, which helps reinforce those lies, even if we know they’re false. And I think that’s part of the problem.” We give people attention, we reinforce their lies, and then we resist disbelieving them. I think of the Republicans who saw George Santos as the perfect candidate to win a Democratic district in New York. When an opportunity like that drops out of the sky, who wants to challenge it?

George Santos waits for the start of a session in the House (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
George Santos waits for the start of a session in the House (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Curtis recently met with Christopher Massimine, a disgraced former theater producer who stood down after an investigation found he had embellished his résumé and embarked on a series of compulsive lies. What struck Curtis when he met Massimine was how Massimine’s wife had unwittingly entered into a dynamic that enabled his lying: "His relationship was being impaired. And his wife wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, and she kept catching him in his lies, too. And so that’s the nuance — how people reinforce it and it becomes a problem.”

After Massimine was found out, he contributed to a candid article in the New York Times about his many falsehoods. He then wrote a blog on Medium titled “I’m a liar, and it will follow me forever” alongside a picture of himself holding his baby son. “I created elaborate tales of success and adventure, while the world passed me by — or rather I let it. See for me, lying has been a coping mechanism. My self-worth was completely attached to the stories — I never felt that I was enough without them. Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. This is where I am in my current perspective,” Massimine wrote in his Medium post, at the end of November 2022. “No longer able to hold my head high in public, I spend my days in my home, writing each time I have the urge to fabricate. It’s been a helpful substitute, but I’m not sure it’s exactly healthy either… When I’m not writing, I’m working with people and organizations that don’t want my name associated with them. I get it. This is my life now, and it may never get better. There are people who will damn me ‘once a liar, always a liar.’ One thing I am convinced of, in being publicly open about my illness, is my past will follow me forever.”

Massimine details how he has been diagnosed with depression, PTSD and a cluster-B personality disorder, and how he lives with constant anxiety: “I am terrified that my wife, who I love with all my heart, will leave me; that my son will grow up and think his father’s a bad person; that the few friends I do have left will fade from my life. These are all reasons for me to keep working on change. But, are these reasons stronger than my compulsion? That’s the real question: will I be able to lead a fully authentic life?” In January, he wrote another post titled “To remain an outcast,” where he detailed how he keeps returning to his compulsive lying and putting himself in the spotlight. He seems confused about his own motivations: “I could easily withdraw from the public eye, pick up a 9–5 at some mom-and-pop store, start over, and have a very fulfilled life. So why do I keep dredging up the past and putting myself through hell?” Since then, he has written two unconnected posts, one about environmental responsibility and one about mental health.

For Curtis, Massimine was a classic example of a pathological liar. Like Stephen Glass — the journalist who was famously found to have fabricated most of his exclusive stories for the New Republic in the 1990s and who subsequently laid low for ten years, then reappeared as a paralegal in California — Massimine expressed genuine remorse for what he did. (I approached Glass for an interview and he politely declined, saying that he was too busy taking care of his ailing parents but that he found the subject of the article interesting for obvious reasons.) And Massimine’s own behavior became unfathomable to him after the act. Curtis says that research on adolescents who compulsively lie has thrown up another possibility for the reasons why people might behave this way: “Pathological lying emerges in adolescence. And there’s this idea that for most of us, we don’t lie often because we can predict the future — that if I start telling lies, my reputation will not hold up, it’ll have these negative consequences in my job or family or social life. So the [idea] is, maybe people who tell these lies aren’t thinking that much into the future or making those predictions, but are very much focused on the moment.” In other words, an inability to accurately look into the future could explain why prolific liars lie the amount that they do. If we go back to Santos, Curtis says, then “maybe if you say you’re Jewish in the moment, maybe that wins someone’s favor in the moment, and you’re not worried about, will someone actually check that out later?”

Curtis works on the lying frontline: as a psychologist and a researcher, he encounters liars every day in practical settings. But there are others who bring a very different perspective on lying behavior. Dorje Brody is a mathematics professor at Surrey University in the UK who builds statistical models attempting to explain why people lie. From his book-lined office in the south of England, he explains on a video call — with the help of a whiteboard and hand-drawn graphs — how it all works.

Brody began his career as an academic in the physics department, then moved briefly into financial mathematics. The most obvious and popular use of financial mathematics is found in predicting the future of stock prices, but Brody found that the same models he used for these kinds of predictions could be applied to human psychology, too: “In a trading context, people want to know the future return of an investment, and of course, no one knows what that’s gonna be. But there’s a lot of information around — a lot of speculation, noise, everything. So investors get ‘noisy’ information and then try to come up with the best estimate of what the future might be. And that’s precisely what the mathematics of [psychological] signal-processing does.” Brody writes “Info = Signal + Noise” on the whiteboard and underlines it. The “signal” is the result you’re trying to extract; for instance, you want to know the most likely candidate who’s going to win in the next election. The “noise” is anything that makes it more difficult to find that result out: perhaps you have a small sample size of people you’ve interviewed about the candidates, perhaps both candidates have been beset with scandals, perhaps mail-in voting has been particularly high or low this year so the exit polls are less reliable. As a statistician, you try to filter out as much noise as you can, like tuning a radio station, in order to get a clear signal for the right information. Once you’ve corrected for the sample size, for those mail-in ballots, for the scandals that might push voters either way, then hopefully the information becomes a lot clearer.

So far, so good. Doing a statistical analysis of an election outcome follows certain rules. And there was a time — indeed, a very recent time — when psychologists believed that human decisions were also made using those kinds of rules.

Imagine three stars on a board (Brody explains this by drawing his own for me.) You are contemplating the question: “Do I believe that Donald Trump was responsible for the January 6th insurrection?” (Brody uses an example in British politics, which I’m Americanizing for the benefit of US readers.) The stars represent three answers to this question. The blue one says “Trump knew a violent riot was probably going to break out that day and he planned everything out so it would happen”. The red one says “Trump had no idea people were going to break into the Capitol that day and he can’t be held responsible”. And then perhaps there’s a yellow one which says “Trump knew a riot was a possibility but he believed it was the only way to stop the election being stolen”.

Imagine a passionate Trump supporter contemplating the question about whether the former president was responsible for the insurrection. Everyone comes to a decision with their own biases, and their own estimations of how likely something is. Our passionate Trump supporter might give the blue star — “Trump knew a violent riot was probably going to break out that day and he planned everything out so it would happen” — an estimated truth percentage of 1%. He might give the red star — “Trump had no idea people were going to break into the Capitol that day and he can’t be held responsible” — an estimated truth percentage of 80%. And he might give the yellow star — “Trump knew a riot was a possibility but he believed it was the only way to stop the election being stolen” — an estimated truth percentage of 19%. He starts off on our graph much closer to the red star. As more information comes in that challenges that view of events, he might move a little bit further away from the red star — so then he’ll be attracted to the yellow star, which he considers to be more likely than the blue. The percentages we estimate for the stars are all different according to who we are, but we all operate on the same graph.

Imagine that during the time our passionate Trump supporter is considering these things, it comes to light that Trump absolutely did plan January 6th. Perhaps a damning memo or piece of footage is released; perhaps he stands up and says it himself. The passionate Trump supporter incorporates this new information into the graph of possibilities. At first, he stays around the yellow star. But then more and more information is released. Trump confirms that he had solid plans for a riot that day. Slowly but surely, our passionate Trump supporter will move into other, more ambiguous parts of the graph, suspended in space rather than stuck to a star. Then eventually, when the evidence becomes overwhelming, he should settle on the blue star — even if he at first believed it had a 1% chance of being true, and even if his shift in opinion takes 50 or 60 years. In other words, if we’re all exposed to the truth enough times — and we are rational people in our right minds — then we should all eventually come to accept the truth.

For a long time, this was the accepted model of psychological decision-making. But then studies started showing something interesting. When people believed there was a 0% chance of something being true — as opposed to even 0.1% — it turned out that they never reached the truth; they never traveled to the blue star. Instead, they stick very closely to their initial position for a very, very long time. They orbit the red star for much longer than expected. Then, all of a sudden, when contradictory information became too great, they extremely rapidly jump onto the next possibility they consider most likely — the yellow star. And they assert that the yellow star is true just as passionately as they used to stick to the red star. For them, the truth is anything except the blue star. They are so utterly blind to it that they instead become zealots for the next-possible outcome — and they don’t move on to the truth, ever.

How does this relate to compulsive liars? People who compulsively lie build a reality where they deliberately blind themselves to the truth. They assign the truth a 0% blue star in their minds. But the universe offers up a multitude of stars, a huge diversity of possibilities apart from the truth. They stick solidly to one star for a long time, and when the evidence that they are lying becomes too public and too overwhelming, they make a very sudden jump to the next star. That next star then becomes their new, unassailable truth. Thus, George Santos started off saying in public that he was a “proud American Jew,” a “Latino Jew,” and sometimes “half Jewish” on his mother’s side, with grandparents who had escaped the Holocaust. Questions had been asked about this heritage before, and Santos stuck solidly to his guns. But after a New York Times investigation found no evidence that he had any ties to Judaism at all, he told the Post: “I never claimed to be Jewish. I am Catholic. Because I learned my maternal family had a Jewish background I said I was ‘Jew-ish’.” George Santos, once a proud American Jew with a Jewish mother and Holocaust survivor grandparents, is now only “Jew-ish” due to some apparent, unclear connection to Judaism in his maternal lineage. And he has a strong and passionate belief that this is true — strong enough to assert in a newspaper that he never claimed to be Jewish at all, despite existent evidence to the contrary. “You sound convincing,” says Brody, “because you’re convinced by yourself that that is the truth.”

Where we might be able to statistically model another person’s movement toward truth — a slow consideration of various factors, and a gradual nudge toward the star that represents reality — it’s basically impossible to work out what a compulsive liar will do next. “If you shut out the truth from whatever you’re going to say, then… you behave in a rather erratic way,” says Brody. “And the point is, statistically you can’t replicate that behavior.” Compulsive liars just don’t behave in any way the same as people who are experiencing “a genuine misunderstanding or a lack of knowledge,” he adds. There’s no way to know which story a compulsive liar is going to alight on next; the only thing we can know is that there will be one, and that he will deliver it confidently and forcefully, as if that’s been the truth he was sure of all his life. “The point is if there’s a way out, you immediately jump to that way out, and you’ll be quite assertive,” says Brody. “That’s the characteristic of this behavior.”

There’s no way to know what George Santos will do next, or how the consequences of his actions will manifest themselves. Brody says that he’ll be interested to watch the fallout, as he watched former British prime minister Boris Johnson behave in the aftermath of the Covid lockdown party controversy that became known as Partygate. As Wednesday brought accusations that Santos had defrauded a veteran out of $3,000 with a false story about a sick dog, the Republican chair of the House small business committee, Roger Williams, said: “I don’t condone what he said, what he’s done. I don’t think anybody does. But [considering whether he should resign] is not my role. He was elected.” Democratic representative Dan Goldman was a little less sanguine. He described the Santos problem as evidence of an issue that goes right to the top of the Republican Party: “The public has no choice but to believe that [House speaker] McCarthy was complicit in concealing Mr. Santos’s lies in order to flip a seat in a win-at-all-costs effort to gain power.”