Just finishing up Karl Marlantes’ What it is Like to go to War (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press). It is not an easy book even as it is a quick read. There are many psychological frailties brought to the surface that should unnerve any reader, and not just those who want to know about war changes a person. One such human foible, lying, gets a whole chapter. After describing types of lies we tell, he has this to say about why we lie,
We lie because we find ourselves in positions where it appears the truth will hurt us. But a truth isn’t a thing like a flying rock. So by “hurt us” we must mean it will hurt some goal toward which we strive. And we’ve managed to confuse that goal with a definition of ourselves. “Hurt our ability to achieve our ends” equates to “hurt us.” Worse, we have such a large number of goals to use to define ourselves that we rarely know which to apply at any particular time. I want to be a hero. I want to stay alive. I want to be a good officer. I want my troops to like me. I want to defend my commanding officer. I want his job. I want to tell the whole world how incredibly difficult a time I have just had. I don’t want to look like a crybaby. I want to uphold the honor of my service. I want to get even. (p. 132)
I think Marlantes nails us all here. We might not struggle with the same wants but surely we can find ourselves in the same sort of struggle between hero and self, between getting what we want and doing the right thing. And we get confused as to what will get hurt if we tell the truth. Though we lie to ourseves that our lies are to protect others, mostly we lie to protect our own self.
Have you caught the television show, “Lie to Me”? It is a newer show based on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman who has researched the ways we involuntarily respond (movements, facial expressions, eyes, etc.) when lying. If you are bored, try watching your friends and family as you ask them penetrating questions. Last night I was up watching TV because I couldn’t sleep. A couple of actors were involved in a infomercial about an enhancement product. I couldn’t help but laugh when the host (a woman) kept saying “this is great” and other praiseworthy statements while looking down and away and shaking her head. She looked about as comfortable as someone having to undress in public.
But, can you really tell if someone is lying? Ekman has compiled an interesting history of research but the data suggest to me that we aren’t all that good in detecting lies. In fact, we’re probably no better than chance. I read a Washington Post article that talked about how some people become quite good at detecting deception in particular situations (e.g., police with thieves) but that these same people don’t seem to be as good at doing that in other parts of their lives.
1. We make these decisions based on our gut as well as our observations. And our gut is about as accurate as coin flips. We consider particular data and reject other data, but not in a thoughtful, conscious way.
2. We don’t always want the truth (this has been brought by other reviewers of this show). We can’t handle the whole truth. If we tried, we’d never trust anyone. We would become paranoid.
3. Deception is a practiced activity, and frankly, we’re pretty good at it. Some are better than others. The best get away with it for a long time.
You might wonder if we can spot lying with other technologies and as you know some things can be detected. Lie detectors do detect autonomic responses. Unfortunately, they can’t tell why you had that response. Some computer programs can detect some unique features often found in text written by those lying (has to do with the amount of positive and negatives used).
One more thing about deception. It is my belief that many people want to tell a portion of the truth. And that is what comes out–the portion they want to believe and they want you to believe. They want to confess–just not the truth as it really is. A good interviewer can draw out these “confessions” and then expose the mis-information to reveal the lie.
Be sure your lies will find you out? Well, we know that is true in light of eternity. And maybe we will find us exposed in this life as well.
Many people, myself included, had a little chuckle when yet another politician is caught by good ole videotape. Senator Clinton turns her trip to Bosnia in 1996 into something designed to play up her experiences with foreign diplomacy. She made it seem that she had to dodge sniper fire on her way from the plane to a waiting car. Now, the country wasn’t a picnic at that time, but neither did she have to dodge bullets. After first defending her account she now admits mis-speaking (notice she didn’t say she mis-represented the fact).
But Senator Clinton isn’t the only one who does this. In fact, I would suggest that we ALL embellish every day. We just don’t have video to catch us in the act. Here’s some possible examples for you to consider:
You leave for an appointment late and the “traffic was bad.” It may have been heavy traffic but the emphasis on the traffic deftly misdirects to a different (and wrong) cause and effect. You were late because you didn’t plan well.
You tell someone that you are friends with _____ (someone you look up to and met once or twice but only on a superficial basis). You do this in order to sound more important.
You tell someone you spent all day cleaning. In actuality, you cleaned at several times during the day but you also watched a movie and surfed the web for an hour. You play up your work in order to make your point. Sadly, when we do it enough, we actually believe what we are saying.
Sometimes, embellishment just helps us make a point or tell a story. I’m not sure it is sinful. It may be that some of the OT numbers are there for story and point-making more than an exact headcount. But, of course embellishment is a problem when we do it to avoid the reality of the truth or to gain something that does not rightfully belong to us. So, let us endeavor to tell the truth and worry less about what others think of us.
Oh, did I tell you that Sen. Barack Obama sent me an email yesterday. Really, he did. 😉