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Inside the mind of a fabulist

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Congressman-elect George Devolder Santos joined the newly  elected GOP members of the Senate and Congress during a press conference on November. 9, 2022 in Baldwin, New York. (Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images)
Congressman-elect George Devolder Santos joined the newly elected GOP members of the Senate and Congress during a press conference on November. 9, 2022 in Baldwin, New York. (Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

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Congressman George Santos is accused of fabricating almost every aspect of his resume.

Santos says he put myself through college and got an MBA from NYU.

Another lie Santos has told --

"I sacrificed both my knees and got very nice knee replacements playing volleyball."

Turns out, not true.

"My grandfather fleeing Ukraine in the 1920’s to Belgium."

Also not true. His grandfather was Brazilian.

"For the Jewish folks in Congress. At one point being just two members. So now we’re going to be three."

Also a lie. There are still two Jewish Republicans in the House, and he's not one of them. Because he's not Jewish.

Today, On Point: How do serial fabulists get this way? Going way beyond the little fibs …to severing all ties with the truth?

Guests

Grant Lally, publisher of The North Shore Leader, a local newspaper on the North Shore of Long Island that’s covered George Santos since 2020.

Chris Hart, professor of psychology at Texas Women’s University. Director of the Human Deception Laboratory and Psychological Science program.

Also Featured

Tali Sharot, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, where she directs the Affective Brain Lab. (@affectivebrain)

Interview Highlights

On how George Santos won his seat in Congress

Grant Lally: "This was a very interesting thing, it's not widely appreciated, but in 2022, he was again, running as a sacrificial lamb, a throw away candidate, someone who couldn't win the seat, but was running to promote his name or for whatever personal reason he had. But it wasn't to win, because there was redistricting in 2022. And the state legislature, which is all Democrat in New York, with a Democratic governor, drew a very gerrymandered map that took this district and made it into what they call a D-plus 11 or 12 district.

"It went into the Bronx and Queens, and it really wasn't a competitive district. Then, this was the reverse bait and switch. He's already on the ballot as a sacrificial lamb candidate in a district he can't win. Then the top court in New York State threw out the map in June, just this past June, and assigned a new map for New York State for all the congressional districts. And that changed this district from being a hard-core Democratic district into a marginally Republican district. So suddenly, the sacrificial lamb was the nominee for a district that most Republicans could win. And this was a red wave here in New York, particularly on Long Island."

On serial liars like George Santos

Chris Hart: "When we look at lying, we think of it like this. People lie when essentially three criteria are met. First is they see some upside or some utility to lying. So people don't lie randomly. They lie when there's a purpose. ... The second criterion is they see the possible negative consequences of lying as tolerable. So usually, people lie when they think they're going to get away with it, or if they believe that if they get caught, it's not going to be that big of a deal. And then the third is they can morally justify their lies.

"That is, they can live with the fact that they're lying. And so when people meet all of those three criteria, we tend to see higher rates of lying. And when they don't, we tend to see lower rates of lying. So for people like George Santos, what we can discern is he probably sees a strong upside or a utility to telling all of these fabulous tales that he is telling. He probably believes that he's going to get away with it. That is, he's not going to be detected or if he is going to be detected, he can get out from any negative consequences. And then thirdly, he probably has a psychology that allows him to morally justify lies and see himself is still being a worthwhile and good individual."

On George Santos and antisocial personality disorder

Chris Hart: "He seems to display many of the characteristics that we identify as antisocial personality disorder or what most people would refer to as a psychopath or a sociopath. One of the key criteria is excessive deceitfulness, typically for gain or even just for pleasure, the pleasure people get from just manipulating others.

And so what we see with antisocial personality disorders is pretty rare. It occurs in about 1 to 4% of the population, but is much higher in prison populations, for example, where about 35% of prison population would meet the criteria for antisocial personality disorder. What the disorder really involves is chronic rule breaking norm, violating and violating the rights of others with very little evidence of empathy or remorse."

On the media's responsibility for George Santos's rise

Grant Lally: "He was not known generally as a liar or a scammer because most people didn't pay attention. And perhaps the biggest failing was the New York media. Aside from my newspaper, our newspaper was the first to break the Santos story. We endorsed against him in the election. We wrote exposés on his lies and his scams.

"But, and this was a real media failing, is that we didn't see the major daily newspapers. None of them picked this up. We didn't see any of the local TV stations pick this up. And that was a real failing institutionally. I mean, we endorsed the Democrat, although, you know, we tend to be Republican newspaper or support Republicans or have a Republican viewpoint.

"We endorsed the Democrat in this contest. Robert Zimmerman was the Democratic national committeeman for New York. So when people became aware and as they became aware and as he became a serious candidate, more and more people became aware that there was what? Or people often said, there's something wrong with George Santos. People kept him at a distance. I mean, it was perhaps most telling was on election night he was not invited to be part of the Nassau. County Republican Victory Party.

"He had his own party in Queens alone. And so people were already getting the sense that there was something really, really wrong with him, that he was dishonest. But look, he was the nominee. And once he's the nominee, there's really nothing you can do to stop it. You can't just say, whoa, time out. We're going to replace him. There's no legal mechanism to do that. So he was the nominee. He had hitched his wagon to what was a red wave and Long Island, at least because Lee Zeldin was the candidate for governor, and he was a Long Island congressman. And that is what George Santos rode to victory."

Are we complicit here in helping normalize a culture of lying?

Chris Hart: "I do think when we look at mental health professionals, we are reluctant to call out someone and give them a diagnosis in the absence of meeting them, and assessing them to do so as to violate the ethical standards of many psychiatric and psychological professional organizations. But I do think when we see, you know, very, very clear evidence of lying, what we are willing to do is say, you know, this person appears to be saying things that aren't true.

"Now, you know, what people do with that is going to be pretty varied. If they are someone who is very supportive of a candidate, they're probably going to look at it as being a slight exaggeration, or note that the other side does exactly the same thing. So, yeah, I believe the media, perhaps they're complicit in some ways as far as not calling a lie a lie, but maybe we all play some role."

Related Reading

North Shore Leader: "The Leader Told You So: US Rep-Elect George Santos is a Fraud - and Wanted Criminal" — "In a story first broken by the North Shore Leader over four months ago, the national media has suddenly discovered that US Congressman-elect George Santos (R-Queens / Nassau) - dubbed "George Scam-tos" by many local political observers - is a deepfake liar who has falsified his background, assets, and contacts. He is fact a wanted petty criminal in Brazil."

This program aired on January 18, 2023.

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