The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What made George Santos lie so much? Experts weigh in on his deception.

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post; iStock/Washington Post illustration)
9 min

Everyone lies. But very few lie quite like George Santos.

His lies are so breathtaking they shocked even the jaded denizens of Washington, who have a high tolerance for exaggeration and self-aggrandizement. Who makes up nearly everything — and then runs for public office? The lies that launched a thousand memes have become a staple for late-night comics and pundits. Can you believe this guy?

Clearly not, but the spectacle of this train wreck risks reducing his dishonesty to a punchline, not a peril. Last week a revised Federal Election Commission filing revealed that Santos (R-N.Y.) was not, in fact, the source for a $700,000 donation to his congressional campaign. His response? A night out in D.C. for karaoke and selfies.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters he had no plans to force the serial fabulist to resign because “the voters elected him to serve” (actually, his persona) and dismissed concerns about padding his résumé: “So did a lot of people here in the Senate and others” — as if all falsehoods are created equal.

He’s right about one thing: Even the most honest people lie. Why? Because they think it’s easier to get what they want by lying instead of telling the truth.

White lies are the social fibs we all use to smooth the rough edges of life. “Your baby is adorable.” “You look great in that dress.” Not only do we forgive these lies, but people believe they are being kind by withholding the truth. (The 1997 comedy “Liar Liar” starring Jim Carrey explored the awkwardness of unvarnished honesty.) The average person tells one or two lies a day, according to research.

There are the deceits people use to get ahead: The college dropout who claims a degree on a résumé; the actor who gets the job by pretending to possess a skill they don’t. The operating principles: Fake it until you make it; ask for forgiveness, not permission. These are the funny stories movie stars and CEO share long after they are immune from consequences.

Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) has falsified his personal history, padded his résumé and made other outlandish claims that have put him in hot water. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

But George Santos (a.k.a. Anthony Santos, Anthony Devolder, Anthony Zabrovsky, Kitara Ravache and more) falls at the far end of the spectrum that deception experts use to identify a pathological liar: Someone who lies even when there’s no apparent reason not to tell the truth, with the intent to manipulate others. They are creative storytellers and great performers who make themselves the hero or the victim of their tall tales, rarely nervous or hesitant while telling them. In short, they can be very charming and persuasive. (Santos’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Dissembling is just a part of it, says Christian Hart, a professor at Texas Woman’s University and the co-author of the upcoming book “Big Liars: What Psychological Science Tells Us About Lying and How You Can Avoid Being Duped.” “He’s not just lying, but he seems to have a long history of somewhat maliciously manipulating other people to live his life. This person isn’t just a liar, he’s a rule breaker, norm violator, risk taker, someone who seems to lack empathy and remorse on a more global scale.”

In Hart’s studies of people who lie excessively, he sees mixed motivations. “In one study, we found that low self-esteem was one of the strongest personality predictors of someone’s tendency to lie — and so this pervasive sense of being inadequate and worrying that you’re not going to measure up. … On the other hand, we conducted other research that suggested that having kind of a dark, manipulative personality also is associated with high levels of lying. These people see everyone is a pawn in their game, and they are happy to manipulate people to get exactly what they want.”

Hart’s book examines liars such as Bernie Madoff, the mastermind behind a $65 billion Ponzi scheme; Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of health technology company Theranos; and Anna Sorokin, who fleeced New Yorkers by pretending to be a German heiress. (She was the subject of the Netflix series “Inventing Anna.”) Their victims were shattered, their motivations simple: financial gain and status.

“People can do really bad things and convince themselves that they’re still a morally decent individual,” says Hart. “And I think people like Elizabeth Holmes and Bernie Madoff actually believed that things were not going to implode, and they weren’t going to harm anyone. They saw their lying as a temporary measure they had to take to deal with some immediate consequence.”

Madoff lied not just to strangers but to his family and closest friends, whom he left in ruins. Why? “He could not tolerate failure,” says Diana Henriques, author of acclaimed biography “The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.” Despite his initial apologies, he “became less remorseful as time passed. I saw a hardening of his attitude toward his victims.”

There is, she says, a “shamelessness that is nonnegotiable in a character like this. It’s an immense power trip putting something over on the rest of us chumps. I think they get a kick out of being the only person in the room who knows the truth.”

Madoff got away with his betrayals for years because his lies were wrapped in truth — he was at one time a respected New York financier — and he leveraged a basic evolutionary trait. “Human beings as a species are hard-wired to trust each other, especially people who look and sound like them,” says Henriques. “Con artists know that and exploit it.”

He lost to George Santos. Now he’s trying to make up for it.

Stephen Glass infamously fabricated quotes and sources as a young writer for the New Republic; the resulting scandal has followed the paralegal for more than two decades. His reason? He wanted to be loved and felt a tremendous pressure to succeed, he told Duke Professor Bill Adair. Glass, who declined to comment on Santos, is now committed to telling the complete truth and says lying is an act of arrogance because it deprives people of the ability to make decisions based on facts.

Lying is a breach of trust, one that may be forgiven but never forgotten. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in “Beyond Good and Evil”: “Not that you lied to me but that I no longer believe you has shaken me.”

That erosion of trust is toxic to human relationships on any scale. In his book “Lying,” neuroscientist Sam Harris writes, “Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies.”

Lies were harder to detect before the internet age, when personal information was more difficult to access. Santos had the hubris to run for elected office in an era when so many résumé embellishments are easier to debunk.

Great con men are good at reading people and are skilled at saying what people want to hear. Santos looked the part — a rich, successful young Republican — and voters were smitten.

“What makes you such an easy target for lying is if the lie that you’re being told is something you’d like to believe,” says Paul Ekman, a retired research psychologist and author of “Telling Lies.” “So if I can figure that out, I have quite an advantage over you.”

Ekman, who trained counterterrorism agents to recognize when someone is lying, says most people aren’t very good at recognizing deception. “I’ve tested a lot of people, and most people can’t tell whether someone’s being truthful to them or not. Policemen think they can tell, but my research shows they’re no better off than anyone else.”

Most people are bad liars because they are uncomfortable when they lie. But some people “can over time develop confidence in your ability to mislead people, and know that you can pretty much expect to get away with it,” says Ekman.

People like to believe they don’t tell big lies because it’s morally wrong; the more pragmatic deterrent is fear of consequences. Bosses often fire employees who falsify their résumés, lawyers can be disbarred for ethical breaches. Madoff received a 150-year sentence and died in prison. Holmes is about to begin an 11-year sentence. Glass was denied entrance to the California bar, although almost 20 years had passed since his deceit went public. Sorokin was convicted of eight counts and served just under four years in prison; now she’s landed a reality show.

Santos managed to land one of the few jobs that protects him: Many of his constituents feel betrayed and the Nassau County Republican Party has called him to resign. McCarthy, who needs his vote, said he will take no action and punted the issue to the Ethics Committee. Unless Santos is indicted, he is likely to continue with the $174,000 salary and perks of a member of Congress.

On Tuesday, Santos announced he was stepping down from his House committees but is otherwise unbowed. There’s a precedent for his bravado: According to The Washington Post Fact Checker, Donald Trump made 30,573 false or misleading statements during his four years as president — averaging about 21 erroneous claims a day. On Nov. 2, 2020 — the day before the presidential election — the number jumped to 503 as he desperately tried to win reelection.

For many loyal supporters, Trump’s dishonesty didn’t change their opinion of him, and they were forgiving of falsehoods as long as he didn’t deceive them. A wingman may chuckle at the lies his best friend uses to pick up women at the bar, but won’t tolerate that same friend lying to him.

As Hart puts it, “People will look the other way about those small violations of the social contract as long as they’re in service of this larger social contract: ‘You’re on my side.’”

Another likely explanation: Lies repeated enough are perceived as being true, something advertising executives have known for decades. Psychologists say humans are predisposed to believe falsehoods even if they have been fact-checked and disproved, a phenomenon known as the “illusory truth effect.”

Hart says that other politicians have lied about their lives but that he’s never seen anything quite like the new congressman from Long Island: “Maybe there have been others in the past, and they just went undetected. But he might just be the first of his kind.”

More on George Santos

Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) was elected to Congress in November and faces calls to resign due to a long list of falsehoods he has told. Here is the list of Republicans calling for George Santos’ resignation.

What has Santos lied about? Santos fabricated much of his biography. The list of untruths is long, here are few: