11/09/2012 12:01 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2013

Let's Be Honest, We're All Liars

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"The stories get passed on and the truth gets passed over. As the sayin goes. Which I reckon some would take as meaning that the truth cant compete." -- Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men

Pamela Myers begins her TEDTalk on deception with an accusation that might start a fight with a different audience. "You are all liars." I'd like to unwrap this idea in order to examine two areas. The first maps the broad spectrum of lies, from the socially sanctioned and the self-deceiving to the conscious intent to mislead. The second area pertains to the lying animal, homo mendax, us humans. Recent discoveries in how the brain edits reality are radically changing the view of our relationship to truth.

If you had to explain our understanding of honesty to an alien, it might prove quite difficult. It's no wonder that it takes children years to "get it". We preach honesty while embracing the lie in a wide range of settings without creating noticeable cognitive dissonance. For the most part, we are not confused or morally troubled by the idea that there is such a thing as an acceptable or even appropriate lie. This may be something we want to rethink as a society if we hope to encourage honesty.

Context, content and culture define the "white" lie. We have no problem understanding the difference between a stage actor and an impostor. We do not judge a magician or poker player's intent to deceive as lying. No conscience is disturbed by lying in response to such questions as "Do I look fat in these pants?" The expression "brutally honest" makes perfect sense to us. "Fact-checking" has become a routine practice after political speeches, a tacit acceptance of very public deception.

We demonstrate remarkable flexibility in our relationship to the truth.

And it gets worse. In order to tell the truth, one must accurately observe and recall a situation. This turns out to be a lot more complicated than you might imagine. There's an old joke in legal circles. "The only thing worse than one eye-witness is two eye-witnesses." We're beginning to understand why no two people see or remember the same thing.

When it comes to recollection, Daniel Kahneman has elegantly demonstrated that we cannot trust ourselves. His research revealed two mental operating systems, an experiencing self and a remembering self.

The experiencing self is the "you" in the moment who lives through the event. The remembering self is the "you" that writes the history. Now here's the problem. The experiencing self and the remembering self don't agree on what happened. In fact, Kahneman has shown that certain discrepancies are hard-wired.

Experiments have revealed two rules that govern the remembering self's recording of an experience.

1. Duration does not count.

2. Only the peak (best or worst) and the end of the experience are registered.

So much for accurate recall. How about perception?

Nature has no love of truth. It's about winning, which is to say living to reproduce. Deception is a ubiquitous method in this evolutionary struggle. Some orchids resemble female wasps and thereby attract males that pollinate the plant. Harmless snakes take on the coloring of poisonous ones and avoid predators. Species routinely take on superficial characteristics that allow them to be perceived as something they are not when it confers a survival advantage.

We are no different. Our brain's assignment is not to depict our environment in accurate detail. The brain's task is to create the greatest chances of reproducing. This often means increasing social status, or appearing more appealing to a potential mate, or more dangerous to an enemy. If this can be accomplished more readily with deception, or even self-deception, so be it.

For example, it has been repeatedly proven that men over-perceive the sexual interest and intent of women. The Darwinian rational for such a distortion is that the cost of this misbelief is much less detrimental to reproductive success than it's opposite, that is the man's sense that the woman is uninterested. For women, not surprisingly, the cost asymmetry is reversed. For a woman to falsely believe in a man's interest in familial investment is more detrimental because it will result in abandonment and therefore a lower chance of the offspring's survival. If she were wrong in this biased perception of a man's familial investment, it would merely delay reproduction, a much less costly error. Let the mating dance begin.

Traditional psychological theories have considered a close relationship with truth as an essential ingredient of mental health. We're no longer so sure.

Positive illusions are more accurately understood as design features of a normal mind rather than a brain function failure. In fact such positive misbeliefs are key to physical health as well. Unrealistically positive views about one's medical condition have been repeatedly linked to better outcomes than more accurate beliefs.

Why are we so good at fooling ourselves?

Because deceit is so fundamental in animal communication, there must be a strong selection to spot deception. This in turn led to a selection for self-deception, burying certain facts and motivations in the unconscious, so as to be the least obvious when our deception is being enacted. This protective system filters what we will "allow" ourselves to see.

Because we are not biologically designed for integrity, we must actively attempt to prevent the social cultivation of dishonesty. For nearly all of human history we communicated face to face. Our brains are exquisitely tuned to read facial expression and body language. This gift is lost to the world of print, email, text, and telephone.

The written word reigns. We have come to value it above the picture. In the realm of honesty it is no different. We use the expression, "I give you my word." The most common path to believing a lie is listening to the words and ignoring the face and body. We are much more adept at editing our words than our appearance. The face is never silent. How we make use of these facts in our high-tech world is unclear. But to think technology has no impact on truth-telling seems shortsighted.

In closing I want to highlight something that may seem so basic it could get lost in this discussion. Most experts agree on the motives for lying: avoid punishment, win admiration, avoid embarrassment, exert power. Perhaps an exploration of how our institutions unwittingly foster a culture that promotes these motives would be a good place to start in an attempt to reduce dishonesty.

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