Adolph Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf:
All this was inspired by the principle–which is quite true in itself–that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.
Similarly, Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, wrote:
That is of course rather painful for those involved. One should not as a rule reveal one’s secrets, since one does not know if and when one may need them again. The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.
Science has now helped to explain why the big lie is effective.
Specifically, sociologists from four major research institutions investigated why so many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, years after it became obvious that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.
- Many Americans felt an urgent need to seek justification for a war already in progress
- Rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.
- “For the most part people completely ignore contrary information.”
- “The study demonstrates voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information”
- People get deeply attached to their beliefs, and form emotional attachments that get wrapped up in their personal identity and sense of morality, irrespective of the facts of the matter.
- “We refer to this as ‘inferred justification, because for these voters, the sheer fact that we were engaged in war led to a post-hoc search for a justification for that war.
- “People were basically making up justifications for the fact that we were at war”
- “They wanted to believe in the link [between 9/11 and Iraq] because it helped them make sense of a current reality. So voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information, whether we think that is good or bad for democratic practice, does at least demonstrate an impressive form of creativity.
As the study notes, this tendency of many people to make up false stories to explain why we went to war and then to hold on to such false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is “a serious challenge to democratic theory and practice”. Until people learn to think more clearly and rationally, they are easily manipulated.
All a government has to do is tell a big enough lie, and many people will swallow it hook, line and sinker. Or the government can just do something big – like starting a war for no good reason (or giving trillions in bailouts to the wealthiest corporations instead of the “little people” who most need it?) – and many people will struggle mightily to themselves concoct false justifications for doing so.