Sunday, July 29, 2007

Questioning Authority

David Livingstone Smith is a liar. And he explains why you are too.

By Vadim Liberman

Dishonesty is pervasive. And that's often a good thing, because the world would collapse under the weight of too much honesty, says David Livingstone Smith, co-founder and director of the University of New England's Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology. "As a species, we are so well practiced in the art of deception that it comes to us almost as naturally and effortlessly as breathing," he writes. In fact, the best liars usually don't know they're lying, Smith points out.

Smith decided to seek the truth in Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind (St. Martin's). Yet despite his investigation into deceit, Smith still considers himself a bad liar. "I really dislike lying intentionally," he admits. "It makes me feel bad." Nonetheless, he confesses to lying in this interview.

Smith, 50, spoke from his Scarborough, Maine, home with Across the Board assistant editor Vadim Liberman about our tendency to deceive-and why Smith felt he had to lie.

You say that the forces of evolution have molded us into natural-born liars. Are people who are better liars more evolved than those who are more honest?

No, because when we speak of evolution, we are talking about a whole species, not individuals. But if we rephrase the question to ask, "Is it advantageous to be a good liar?" I'd say without a doubt, yes. People who deceive effectively get ahead in life. If I can cheat you to my advantage without you catching on, I've gotten ahead. Conscious lying is a very special talent, an aptitude. And most of us are very bad at it. Most people are also very bad at noticing lies. Only perhaps one in a thousand is extraordinarily skillful at detecting lies. In one study, for example, psychologists asked experienced law-enforcement officers, rookie cops, and college students to determine whether various individuals were lying or telling the truth. Not only were there no significant differences in the accuracy of the judgments of the three groups-all three guessed right at a frequency only minimally better than chance. They might as well have just flipped a coin.

Do you need to be a good liar to spot a good liar?

Not necessarily, but I would guess that good liars would have superior lie-detecting abilities. In fact, the next stage of evolution is the ability to detect lies. To do so, it's very important to observe someone's nonverbal action and not to be misled by his words, because words are cheap. What one should look at are changes in voice, little involuntary movements of hand and feet, or transitory facial expressions that are not congruent with the stated affect. For instance, when we're angry, we involuntarily tighten our lips, so a person who is ostensibly and overtly friendly, but whose lips are tightening, might be deceiving you. Or: In a genuine smile the eyes participate, whereas they don't in that phony have-a-nice-day smile.

How often does the average person lie?

First, it's important to point out that lying is normal, and more often spontaneous and unconscious than cynical and coldly analytical. Our minds and bodies secrete deceit. That said, Robert Feldman, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, suggests that there are three lies for every ten minutes of conversation. I think that's plausible. And bear in mind that his research measured only the frequency of narrow, explicit, verbal lying. The real rate of deception, which includes our movements and expressions, must be considerably higher.

In that case, what have you lied to me about so far?

Right now I'm trying to sound as knowledgeable and impressive as I possibly can. I sort of convinced myself that I'm this great authority on lying. But really, I'm lying, in the sense that when we're interacting with others, we're always performing. So for this interview, I've been playing the role of an expert trying to impress you. There's deception involved. I, however, am aware of this effort. But plenty of people are not aware of their self-deception; they are narcissistic and have convinced themselves that they're the greatest thing since sliced bread. In fact, most people tend to believe their own lies.

You say that self-deceived people are often mentally healthier than those who are honest with themselves.

Yes, lying to oneself promotes psychological well-being. Research shows that depressed people deceive themselves less than those who are mentally healthy. Frankly, if we did not deceive ourselves, I think we would go mad from distress. For example, the simple fact that we're all going to die, that there are various people in the world out to get us, that a good deal of the world lives in unrelenting misery and hunger-it's all enough to drive everyone bonkers. Unless we are capable of shielding ourselves from that, we would be constantly disturbed. It's why we worry more about missing our favorite TV show than about a dirty bomb going off in a terrorist attack.

Also, self-deception relieves us from a sense that we're constantly living in contradiction. We each have a set of values that we constantly violate. When you're aware of transgressing one of those values that you hold dear, you tend to feel bad about yourself. In deceiving ourselves, we relieve ourselves of that burden, making life a lot easier and lot more pleasant for ourselves. It's quite wonderful.

Finally, if we convince ourselves we're not really lying, we can lie far more effectively than might otherwise be the case. All of our social lies, like the fake smile, involve the manipulation of how others see us. Our lives are saturated with pretense and dishonesty. Although we claim to value truth above all else, we are also at least dimly aware that there is something antisocial about too much honesty.

So should we value lying more than telling the truth, especially since you said that good liars have an advantage in life?

When I'm talking about advantage, I'm talking about what gives an individual organism success. But all sorts of things can give individual success. Killing one's rivals is an example, but just because it gives you an advantage doesn't morally justify it. Put it this way: If one thinks that individual advantage is the ultimate value in life, it would follow that one should work at becoming a very good, calculating liar. But encouraging lying to one's individual advantage will always receive social disapproval, because if you are taught to lie better, that's against everyone's interest. Just as it might be advantageous for each of us to lie, it's disadvantageous for each of us to be lied to. For lying to be advantageous, society has to place an emphasis on honesty. Unless we have a sense that there's truthfulness enough of the time, lying ceases to function. That's illustrated in the old story about the boy who cried wolf. If we get a situation where we're all cold-bloodedly out to lie to each other, we will lose trust in each other, lying will stop working, and the world would collapse under the weight of too much lying.

The world is certainly collapsing these days around some high-profile people who've been caught lying. Do certain professions attract people who are better at lying?

There are certain professions that traffic in illusions. Deception would appear to be the norm rather than the exception in business. It is so commonplace on Madison Avenue that an advertising industry without it is hard to imagine. Anyone attempting to overcome sales resistance has got to be a good manipulator-that is, a good liar. For instance, successful politicians are better at lying than others. People say they want an honest politician, but I'm not convinced how genuine that is. What they really mean is that they don't want to be taken advantage of. But if a politician's dishonesty is to people's benefit, they tend not to consider it dishonesty. Of course, no politician would say he's good at lying. None of us would say that. To advertise one's own dishonesty is social suicide. Yet if you ask people if they think that lying is pervasive, most would say yes. But it will never be their own dishonesty. It will always be someone else's.

Do people lie more today than in the past?

I don't think so. All the evidence suggests that the tendency to deceive is deeply rooted in the human animal. Lying is not a particularly contemporary phenomenon. However, the structure of our society in our developed world may make it easier to lie. The anonymity of today's mass society, which is relatively new, is important. We spent most of our time as a species living in small communities where the system of personal relationships in small communities really was a powerful constraint on lying. If you were caught lying, your reputation was shot or you were banished from the community. It's easier to avoid that sort of consequence in the mass, anonymous society we have today. Of course, there are still major penalties today for the bigger, intentional lies.

Do you find it dangerous that it's becoming easier to lie?

Yes, because there's so much at stake. We're no longer running around in bands of thirty with stone tools. We have the fate of the world in our hands. I'm afraid that the way that evolution has shaped us hasn't made us really well-equipped for handling that degree of responsibility.

Source: Conf Board Review
Img: flickr

1 comment:

Kanchu said...

hi fren nice ur article...
i already add ur blog in my blog..