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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Why do humans lie so much?

Lying is a social phenomenon. Without a cooperative audience, lying would be nearly impossible.

T o a scientist, the very idea of lying is anathema. Not because we're any more ethical than anyone else, but because lying would negate everything the profession stands for. If scientists lie, then they have nothing of value because their only currency is truth.

Yet I have seen my colleagues lying many times. One invented a phony statistical test that turned meaningless results into highly significant ones. He knew the boss wanted significant results; he reasoned he could gain status by telling him what he wanted to hear.

That doesn't explain why the boss accepted it. Nor does it explain why a boss himself would lie. Yet it happens. The sound of rustling dollar bills is a powerful incentive to deceive oneself.

Self-deception, incidentally, is the main reason that scientific research is sometimes hard to reproduce. (The other reason is the social organization of labs. Much of the work is done by inexperienced students who receive inadequate guidance because their supervisor is too busy writing grants.)

But try as they might, bosses can't compete with politicians, for whom skill at lying is written in bold red Comic Sans on the front page of their résumés.

Fake green caterpillar
Fake photo of a fluorescent green caterpillar

Today we have a marvelous opportunity in the two presidential candidates to compare the two different types of lying. One lies brazenly, knowing that her fans are aware it's all lies but don't care because they are only interested in power; while it is hard to ascertain the true beliefs of the other. His fans, too, know he could be lying, but in their wishful thinking they hope he will do at least some of what he promises.

We have become connoisseurs of fine lying.

It's like those sci-fi movies where the alien creature creates an illusion that shows people what they want to see. Space 1999 had one, Star Trek Voyager had one, and no doubt so did many others that I have blocked from my memory. The crew is heading for a disaster, thinking that paradise, either a return to Earth or perhaps a planet of scantily clad women, awaits them. In the movie there's always one person who's immune, and the other humans threaten and imprison that person so they can get on with the plot.

Without this one guy, there would be no story: Opening credits. Space ship full of deluded fools crashes into black hole. The end. Roll credits. Go to commercial.

But why does it happen in the real world? Maybe it is because we no longer have a sense of shame. We have become a society where anything goes, where both men and women make crude displays on stage without embarrassment and politicians make promises they have no intention of keeping; to the audience it's just entertainment.

Last week I ran across a blogger who claimed that Negro Mountain[6], a 3000-foot high hill in Pennsylvania named for a black Civil War hero, was originally called ****** Mountain. This would obviously be difficult to check, given how meanings and pronunciations evolve, so the blogger felt free to tell a lie to embellish his case.

When bloggers make up a fact to express their political hatred, or when children lie to avoid being punished, we recognize lying as a social function. Conversely, a person living in solitude has no reason to lie. Introverts have less reason to lie than extroverts, for whom social praise and acceptance are all important. That's why we have the stereotype of the wise hermit meditating on a mountaintop.

No sane person would lie that 2 + 2 = 5, as it is too easily proven false. But a lie need not hold up forever to be useful; a businessman, for example, might only have to lie about a phony business plan long enough for the investor to agree to fund the project.

Psychologists talk about pathological lying as a way of defending oneself from the reality in which one lives. Called pseudologia fantastica[1], part of the motivation is to project the negative parts of the liar onto another. When we accept a lie, we are allowing that person to deprive us of contact with reality.

A lie therefore goes nowhere unless the audience wishes to be lied to. Lying is intimately tied to wishful thinking in the listener—a wish to escape an unpleasant reality. Employees might hope the boss is telling the truth when promising a raise, though they are acutely aware that no one has ever actually gotten one. There is also a Darwinian component: a boss will fire any employee who mentions the company's financial situation because that person makes the lies more difficult to believe.

Westerners used to believe that honesty was a virtue. We haven't really lost that. What we've lost is more fundamental: the idea that virtues are worth having. Dishonesty has become institutionalized. Somewhere between 27 and 58% of medical students are said to cheat in med school [3] because they are convinced it would hurt their chances. They believe the system is rigged, and honesty could cheat them out of twenty years of work.[4]

Another goal of liars is to block honest, civil discussion, perhaps because they recognize their case is weak. Barton Swaim wrote

Allegations of dishonesty, moreover, make debate impossible. You can't discuss anything with someone who calls you a liar: The accusation destroys the good faith that makes discussion, even heated discussion, possible. Hence parliamentary rules strictly forbid the accusation of deliberate untruth—not because anyone thinks politicians cannot tell a lie, but because once the accusation is allowed into debate, debate is at an end and the whole affair descends into heckling.

Then there's the increasing legalization designed to circumvent the need for personal integrity; with the crutch of a million rules, all designed to catch dishonesty, there's no need for personal integrity. And there's the destruction of social bonds, including the employer-employee bond, where people are no longer trusted employees but disposable and interchangeable droids to be ‘cut’ when profits go down. Loyalty no longer exists, and with loyalty went respect.

And that, I think, is the nub of it. We have lost respect for each other and for ourselves. So we don't care whether we lie to them, and we know, deep down, that they don't respect us either, because we know they are lying to us.

A very insightful paper by ten Brinke, Vohs, and Carney[5] says that we only detect lies when the costs of failing to detect deception exceed those of signaling distrust. They call it the tipping point framework of lie detection. I would say it a different way: we detect a lie when the benefit of detecting a lie exceeds the psychological cost of acknowledging that the other person is a no-good, lying bastard.

However you phrase it, there's a tipping point in there somewhere, and we seem to have passed it. When the world is run by dirty rotten bastards, you have to become one yourself to survive.

[1] Fenichel, O. (1954). The economics of pseudologia phantastica. Collected papers (pp. 129–140). New York: WW Norton, cited in [2].

[2] Int J Law Psychiatry. 2016 May–Jun; 46:88–93. Psychiatric aspects of normal and pathological lying. Muzinic L, Kozaric-Kovacic D, Marinic I. Link

[3] Medical students' perceptions of cheating. Simpson DE, Yindra KJ, Towne JB, Rosenfeld PS Acad Med. 1989 Apr; 64(4):221–222.

[4] Tex Heart Inst J. 2008; 35(1): 6–15. Dishonesty in Medicine Revisited. Herbert L. Fred Link

[5] Trends Cogn Sci. 2016 Jun 25. pii: S1364-6613(16)30054–7. Can Ordinary People Detect Deception After All? Ten Brinke L, Vohs KD, Carney DR. Link

[6] The name seems to have been chosen because the Civil War hero had a rather weird name that would have made no sense for a mountain.

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