Why People Lie for Those in Power

Whether it’s politics, sports, entertainment, or corporate America, there are tons of stories of people covering up for the sins of leadership. Here’s the psychology of why people lie to protect someone in power.

In December 2018, the president’s former attorney was sentenced to three years in prison for a number of crimes including tax fraud and campaign finance violations. In his statement to the judge, he claimed that he knew his actions were wrong but that he was drawn in by the president’s charisma and mission.

Several people have asked me why he would have done all of that if he knew it was wrong.

That’s the million-dollar question and one we can ask about thousands of current and historical events.

Why do people lie for a leader?


worried man

Three Key Psychological Reasons People Lie for Those in Power

When people lie to save someone in power, it’s usually due to a combination of  key factors:


winner of the fight

1) Basking in Reflective Glory

BIRG, as it’s called by social psychologists, means we want to be associated with the winning team because that makes us look good and feel important. That’s why people who’ve never even been to Pennsylvania are Eagles fans following their Super Bowl win in 2018.

Look at every cult leader and dictator in the history of the world. They all had a posse that followed them around and took pride in being part of their brain trust, even if it involved committing the most awful crimes against humanity.

In most cases, you’re thinking that if you’re part of a strong leader’s team, you must be really successful and important. Others may envy you because of access to the leader or attention you get from them.  Being part of this select group also gives you more power than those in the cheap seats.  As a result, you’ll do whatever it takes to stay part of the inner circle.


money and prize

2) There’s a Clear Personal Advantage

There are two factors that govern human behavior. We do things to gain pleasure or avoid pain. That’s it. We’re not that complicated.

Charismatic, manipulative leaders will promise you fame, protection, resources, power, a better job…whatever they know matters to you in order to gain and keep your loyalty.

It doesn’t take very long before you are fully convinced that hitching your wagon to this powerful person is good for you and your career.



3) The Threat of Punishment

Whether it’s been said directly or just alluded to, you know that not following orders will land you in deep trouble. You’ve seen the crafty, power-hungry leader destroy others’ careers or lives. They lead and maintain loyalty through fear and intimidation.

They’re not kidding when they say that crossing them will result in trouble for you. Charismatic, manipulative leaders are usually excellent at figuring out your weak spots and finding the information they can use against you. They also know when to press the buttons that trigger your fear and insecurity.

In this way, they can control you indefinitely because you never know when they’ll drop the ax. You just know that they can and that, if triggered, they would.

In order to protect your career, family, life, freedom, etc., you follow orders. You justify what are usually terrible acts by saying you’re just doing your job as well as protecting the all-knowing leader and their mission.

Look at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders and soldiers following World War II.  Almost every single one of them used, “I was following orders and just doing my job,” as their defense.



Following the Leader is a Choice

There will always be charismatic, calculated, power-seeking leaders who manage to drum up a strong and solid following. That’s inevitable. Thousands of years of human history proves that.

When this type of leader is at the helm, everyone is in danger. This leader’s main focus is gaining and maintaining power. The fact that heads will roll in the process is just the cost of doing business.


follow the leader

Will People Always Sacrifice for the Leader?

Yes and no.

There will always be people who are drawn to the charisma and power of the calculated leader.  The leader relies on this and makes promises and statements that fill a need or source of pain in their follower’s lives.

These leaders are brilliant at finding and nurturing loyal followers.  In turn, these followers will continue throwing themselves under the bus to save the leader.

Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself.  If you’re faced with this kind of choice, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How much risk am I willing to take for this person?
  2. Are others going to get hurt as a result of my actions?
  3. What happens if I don’t go along?
  4. Does this line up with my values?


When you’re ready to work on changing the relationships you’re in and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for others, please give us a call.

Dr. Levy

Bucks County Anxiety Center
Clinical Director

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