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Who Can We Believe? Dr. Ekman's Not-So-Magic Cure

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Sometimes I use the weekend to catch up on my reading. Sometimes I regret it. A partial sample from last weekend:

  • BusinessWeek tells me that: "After agreeing to pay $23 billion in penalties and settlements in 2013, JPMorgan Chase (JPM) Chief Executive Jamie Dimon was rewarded today by the board he chairs, receiving a 74 percent pay raise to $20 million."
  • Vanity Fair says that Donald Trump is not a trustworthy educator. Serious yuk.
  • In "The Truth About Pork ..." BusinessWeek leads me to think that Hormel's drive for profits is the company's most appetizing attribute.
  • Vanity Fair makes a compelling case that, if you're sexually active or know someone who is, give careful thought, without Republican assistance (e.g. Mike Huckabee), to safe methods of birth control. Big Pharma manages, yet again, to appear both greedy and uncaring (1, 2, 3 , 4 ).
  • Monday morning there was the report of a letter in The Wall Street Journal from billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins whining about his denigrated status as a 1-percenter and then, going well over the top, comparing himself and his fellow travelers to European Jews in the 1930s and '40s. His imagined progressive persecutors are, you guessed it, latter-day Nazis. Mr. Perkins letter is remarkably obtuse for a person presumed to be intelligent. One would think he would have a better understanding of power... its uses and abuses. Proof again (if more is needed) that even clever people are not universally clever. Mr. Perkins was on the board of Rupert Murdock's News Corporation when it took over Dow Jones Co., owner of The Wall Street Journal, which may be their excuse for publishing this ill-conceived letter.
  • Then there are the "life, liberty and the right to pollute" amendments to state constitutions.
  • Egypt's Army has decided that it's still a really good idea to have their top general become president -- bad for Egyptians, good for the kleptocrats.
  • And, everyone now has something to say about Chris Christie.

In each case innumerable people are being damaged, sometimes fatally, by people who benefit from causing that damage -- intentionally or otherwise. The perpetrators are uniformly evasive or dishonest about their actions and their intentions.

These readings resulted for me in a process paralleling Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's 5 stages of grief. Denial (stage 1) didn't seem a plausible course, but I was angry (stage 2), very angry.

My variation of bargaining (stage 3) began with an attempt to find reasonable solutions (a tactical and strategic error when confronting these perversions). Where do these people get their nerve? Next (also stage 3), I tried to figure out the source of what in several cases would be criminal behavior if laws were just, enforced and equally applied to corporate "persons", rich persons and the rest of us. In no order and not exhaustively the following excuses or enablers came to mind.

  • Hubris
  • No consequences (functional impunity)
  • Adolescent boundary pushing
  • Sociopathy - this smacks of pop psychology, but we're trying to be ecumenical (5, 6, 7).
  • Entitlement
  • God-chosen/Unnaturally self-adulatory/ego-exceptionalists/ego-maniacal behaviors -- Paraphrasing Louis XIV ("L'Etat, c'est moi) -- Mon Dieu, c'est Moi.
  • Acute Empathic Deficiency (a rather Buddhist view shared by Jesus if not by all Christians)
  • Hopelessly Greedy -- as Pope Francis has said: "No to a financial system, which rules rather than serves. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God." And this: "Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor, so that they are not abandoned to the laws of an economy that seems at times to treat people as mere consumers." Though Francis would disapprove the "hopelessly" part.
  • "House Rules Apply" and they (the malefactors) are the house.
  • Cloaking device. The corporate fortress is handy (see J. Dimon, Hormel, Big Pharma, above): no one will find out and if they do it won't hurt me... screw the shareholders (Bob Monks has covered this subject nicely in Corpocracy and Citizens DisUnited).
  • Contempt -- Mark Twain said "Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it." Twain has a point. Of course, the test is: who judges "worthy"?
  • Immunity
  • They think we're stupid
  • We are stupid.

I was saved from spiraling into depression (stage 4) by a timely email from Paul Ekman who has invested much of his career examining and detecting liars. Unaware of my incipient spiral, he suggests (in my words) that the perpetrators are often thrill-seekers, adrenaline junkies. This is Dr. Ekman's (expert) view:

WHO CAN WE BELIEVE?

Paul Ekman
Professor, emeritus, UCSF

The hullabaloo about whether Governor Chris Christie ordered access lanes to the George Washington Bridge narrowed to punish a political opponent raises once again how can we decide who to believe. It is too early to know yet about the Governor, but he is far from being the first whose initial denials have in time been proven false. But not always. Some of our leaders didn't do it; their denials are truthful.

How are we to know then who to believe? It can't just be whether the politician belongs to our political party. Both parties have been home to spectacular liars.

One might think that the glare of publicity would discourage politicians on the national stage from lying, but it doesn't. Not even the knowledge that dozens of investigative reporters, let alone those hired by their political opponents will be checking on what they say and do, doesn't stop bald-faced lies.

Don't they know they will be caught? Why doesn't that stop them?

Although most of the infamous lies have involved sex (Bill Clinton, John Edwards, John Ensign, David Petraeus, Mark Souder, Eliot Spitzer, and so on). A few lied about their health status, recruiting their doctors to back up their false denials. John F. Kennedy successfully concealed his Addison's disease. Presidential candidate Paul Tsongas in 1992 denied that lymphoma had returned, his untrue claim backed up by his doctors who knew better.

These liars are all men, (but I expect that now that women are breaking through the glass ceiling, some will soon join the rogue's liar gallery). These are smart men; it isn't a lack of intelligence that is responsible for them lying when there is little chance of succeeding. It has to be something else.

Is it simply hubris, a sense of entitlement to live by a different set of rules? Is that what the pinnacle of power does to those who reach it? Or, when it is clear that the jig is up, do these national leaders persist as long as they can, because power is too sweet to abandon before it is yanked away? For some I expect there is a thrill in the risk, the excitement generated by the danger of being caught, a challenge they can't resist to see if they can get away with it. Maybe when you have become so powerful that conquests are easy, the thrill only comes from taking such risks, from putting yourself in dangerous jeopardy.

I have called this 'duping delight'. Behavioral signs of it have betrayed many criminals. Unlike fear it is rarely shown by an innocent under suspicion of committing a felony. Often criminals are caught because they brag about their accomplishments. John Walker Jr. sold secrets about how America kept the propellers on our nuclear subs silent. He was caught after bragging to his wife about how much he was getting paid by the Soviets, but she was his ex-wife and he was behind in alimony.

Should we disbelieve all politicians, about everything they say? Is that the lesson? Note that the lies that have been substantiated are not, for the most part, about policy taken or contemplated, it is about personal matters. It is all too easy to accuse politicians of lying about policy when they disagree with us, but more often it is the result of mistaken judgments, bad briefing, hopes that turned out not to be grounded in the reality that unfolded. So trust their policy promises, even when you disagree, don't dismiss them as lies, for often they won't be. But skepticism about their personal virtue won't always be misplaced.

[Ekman is the author of Telling Lies, and a consultant to law enforcement, national security, and corporate security.]

"Thrill in the risk" makes sense, particularly because in many cases the perpetrator enjoys the "thrill" (adrenaline) without substantive "risk". Dimon gets his paltry $25 million; Perkins maintains his multi-billionaire ($8 billion and counting) status along with the self-righteousness of the ersatz persecuted. Chris Christie never expected to be caught (the "risk" was hypothetical) what he "risked" was the derailing of a seriously hypothetical shot at the presidency. [If he actually ends up going to jail for something which emerges from the tangle of this unfolding idiocy, I'll be... surprised.]

After reading about "duping delight" my husband, who grew up in the '60s, failed to resist launching into a chorus of "Dupe of Earl" and then insisted on showing me the lyrics from the original "Duke of Earl" recording. "Delusion" shares the same Latin root as "duping." As the lyrics attest, the Duke of Earl is delusional. Dr. Ekman is onto something. Both "delusion" and "illusion" trace back to the Latin for "play: (ludere). This is a game to these people, the classic Wall Street game of "heads, I win; tails, you lose." The deck is stacked. The miscreants cheat. It is a game they think they can walk away from at any time... and take their winnings with them. Too often, they do.

Dr. Ekman (8, 9, 10) has helped me get a little better grasp on how to deal with these reprehensible persons. First, a healthy, informed skepticism is essential.

Second, "If you're in the con game and you don't know who the mark is... you're the mark.*" Alas, all too frequently we are in a con game, particularly in the commercial sphere. Advertising, marketing, sales, finance, politics and belief systems do not traffic in veracity. Indeed, even if the game is not a con game, if I don't know the rules, I am at risk. If someone can change the rules on a whim or on the back of a purchased politician, I am at risk. If I am a lousy player, I am at risk. If I trust the untrustworthy, I am at risk. If someone tells me they have the answer, I am at risk. If I know that I have the answer, I am at risk.

Third, "belief" is not a binary system. It is what Lotfi Zadeh characterizes as a fuzzy system. Believe a little and doubt a lot. Understanding the particular environment and its actors (the other sense in which play/ludere is relevant) helps us discover the appropriate degrees of trust and doubt.

Fourth, Kübler-Ross's 5th stage, acceptance, is not an option here. Con men (and women), cheaters, fixers, true believers, thieves and Koch-heads (11, 12) must be outed and excluded. We cannot allow them to drive us to cynicism or to steal us blind or to kill us.

Most of us would like to believe what people tell us. We are not well adapted to handling dishonesty. Dishonest people exploit that. The antidote is to keep asking Dr. Ekman's question "Who Can We Believe?"... again and again and again.

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*-- attributed to David Mamet, an attribution which I have been unable to verify. However, in trying to do so I found another quote from his Faustus which I commend to Tom Perkins for his consideration: " The greater the intellect, the more ease in its misdirection."

This post was co-written by Bill Russell, AKA "my husband (above)"