Born Liars by Ian Leslie

Some books about lying and deception say “lying is generally bad and sometimes very bad, so lie as little as possible,” and I find myself agreeing. Others, like Born Liars, say “lying is ubiquitous, natural, and inevitable, so there’s no need to feel either guilty about your lies or surprised when others lie,” and once again I find myself agreeing.

Surely I’m not just a fickle pushover? Let’s just say I’m approaching the topic of lying via the Hegelian dialectical method: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Some lies are harmful and should be avoided, while other lies should be considered normal or even healthy, and it’s important to know what strategy to use in various contexts. Ta-da!

For many facts and ideas that stood out as well as information on when and why I read the book, see below.

What stood out when I read Born Liars

Authenticity and transparency

In a paragraph that refers to Jane Austen’s Emma, which I read recently, Leslie points out that:

[A]ll mind-reading is flawed and erratic; that’s why successful lying is possible in the first place. None of us ever quite cracks the great mystery of what makes other people do the things they do, or fathom what Phillip Roth calls “this terribly significant business of ‘other people'”. As a species we are just good enough at mind-reading to construct sophisticated ideas about what other people believe, and just bad enough at it to make errors. (35)

The problem of being misperceived is addressed in another book I recently read, No One Understands You and What to Do about It.

Often we forget that people don’t know what we’re thinking. Leslie refers to Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Tell-Tale Heart, which I also read recently. In it, a guilty man confesses to a murder because he believes the police are sure to have discovered his secret soon if they haven’t already. Leslie calls this story “a dramatic example of what the psychologist Thomas Gilovich terms the ‘illusion of transparency'” (100). That makes sense; we think we’re broadcasting a certain message, but that’s not necessarily the case at all!

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
—George Bernard Shaw

Lie-detecting machines

The more I read about polygraphs, the more I think they are placebo tools that work, if they work, by means of psychological manipulation. If people think the machine can read their minds, they’re more likely to tell the truth. Leslie describes how simple ignorance is a tool police can use against gullible suspects:

Police cared little for the science — they just knew that presenting suspects with this magical device was a great way of extracting a confession (in a scen from HBO’s The Wire, based on real-life police practices in the 1980s, officers are shown extracting confessions by putting a suspect’s hand on a photocopy machine filled with paper printed with the word LIE). (129–130)

The chapter on polygraph machines talks about a guy named William Moulton Marston, who was responsible for inventing an apparatus that measured blood-pressure (a component of later polygraph machines) and for creating Wonder Woman, whose lasso makes people tell the truth. He said there were no popular female superheroes because “there had never been a character who combined strength with femininity” (133).

I’ve been in fMRI machines as a subject for research studies on visual memory (among other things), but I did not know that you can pay for an fMRI deception test (136)!

Mistaken intuitions

Leslie, like other authors whose works I’ve read, points out that ascertaining truth via questioning is tough when memories are not just transient or fragile but inherently malleable (144).

An insightful formulation:

[T]he truth doesn’t reside inside any one person — it’s out there in the world, and it can only be established by the gathering of evidence, and the painstaking assembly of multiple points of view. As individuals, we are thoroughly unreliable witnesses, even to ourselves. (157)

Leslie retells the story of Bill Jenkins and other patients who had their brain hemispheres intentionally severed. The result was that the right hemisphere, with no access to language, would sometimes try to communicate in other ways, giving rise to ‘alien hand syndrome’ and other curious behaviors. What does that have to do with lying? Experiments show that if the right half of the brain (prompted by an instruction presented only to the left eye) decides to do something, the ignorant left half will invent a spurious reason that the person thinks is the one and only true reason. Ergo, we can’t necessarily trust ourselves to tell the truth even to ourselves (172–178).

I’ve read something similar elsewhere, but it bears repeating. To win someone over, ask him or her a favor. It will usually be agreed to out of politeness, but will be afterwards retroactively justified by totally imagined feelings of friendliness which then become real. The trick works because people tell themselves a story that makes them look consistent. Having agreed to, say, lend you a book, it just makes more sense for that guy to consider you a friend. Otherwise there’s this cognitive dissonance in the back of his head asking him why he lent a book to someone he doesn’t like. To get rid of the cognitive dissonance, he will just up and decide to like you, if only a little bit more than before (184–85).

Psychologist Leon Festinger posited that religions exist because of the same need for a story that fits our experiences (197).

Sadly, even after we learn about our cognitive biases, and are explicitly reminded of them, we still fall prey to them (203).

Realism is overrated?

“The philosopher William Hirstein has proposed that the opposite of self-deception is not self-knowledge, but obsessive-compulsive disorder” (206). Rob us of our positive illusions and we don’t become enlightened, we become depressed (207). There you have it: professional psychologists agree that ignorance is bliss. There’s even a chart (222). Gah!

Furthermore, rationality equates to economic stagnation:

The economic historian John V.C. Nye has argued that countries become economically stagnant when their business people become too rational and sensible. Every dynamic economy needs its share of what Nye calls ‘lucky fools’; over-optimistic entrepreneurs who are prepared to take irresponsible risks. (212)

Lies and placebos in medicine

Cool fact: “Placebo is Latin for ‘I will please'” (242).

Not-so-cool fact: Mesmer, the original guy who “mesmerized” people, was creepy (250). His treatments were supposedly medical, but they were highly unscientific.

Interesting medical ethics issue: to use or not to use placebo treatments? On the one hand, they work to some extent. On the other hand… healing by misleading people seems… highly unscientific (262–65).

At least one study suggests that a surgical patient will heal faster if the surgeon shows him or her the problematic object after removing it from his or her body (266). So maybe my doctor had a good reason for showing me the gunk he cleaned out of my ears. (Dude, I’d really rather not have seen that stuff…)

On the subjectivity of pain: A soldier, receiving a wound in battle, feels relief because he will be taken away from the fighting, cared for, and sent home. A civilian, suffering a wound in an automobile accident, feels panic because his health, family, finances, and career have all just taken an unexpected turn for the worse (282).

Truth in advertising

I enjoyed the story of the brilliant tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign to promote the “Diamond Shreddie”, an all-new item of breakfast cereal which was just the old square one shown rotated 45 degrees. The point is that most products never really change; what you’re buying, and therefore what is being advertised, is symbolic value, which can in fact transform into real performance value! Thus, advertising can be “deceptive without being dishonest” (272–75).

Lies, astrology, and religion

I knew from some related reading that the western zodiac predicts personality, but only the personalities of those who believe in it; studies have also been done on the effect of traditional Chinese beliefs about which years are considered ill-fated. As you might imagine, the results were similar (290).

Blue-colored sleeping pills work best except in Italy, where they don’t work as well as pills of other colors do, at least on men. The assumption is that blue isn’t a sleepy color among Italian men because it makes them think of the Italian football (soccer) team (291–92).

The doctrine of “mental reservation” is totally crazy. Basically, some religious guys decided that you can speak any lie you want to, as long as you are simultaneously imagining a sentence into which you have inserted specific words that make the spoken sentence true (303–304).

Lies and ethical norms

Another famous guy in the Lying Is Bad club is Immanuel Kant, who said he believed that telling the truth was an absolute good, and trumped other concerns, including wanting to save someone you care about from a would-be murderer, because somehow the individual violates his own humanity if he lies (311). I do think lying can damage the self, but often that damage is way less than the damage done by not lying, and I think most people, no matter how against lying they are, would make exceptions in at least some kinds of cases.

People in China and other parts of Asia take a totally different approach. The question is not “am I being truthful” but “am I harming someone else” or more importantly, “will my group suffer”. In other words, it’s not the truth that matters, but the stakes; thus the decision to lie or not to lie is very much dependent on other cultural values, like modesty. A study on Chinese children found that they considered it admirable for a fictional boy to lie to diminish his own achievements—and in fact deplorable for him not to (314–317).

On the other hand, the smile-and-nod approach to avoiding ruffling feathers in your workplace or community may have a detrimental effect on your intellectual environment. If you don’t express your true thoughts, the group’s explicit beliefs may diverge from people’s actual but secret beliefs. In other words, outmoded ideas may become entrenched through inertia simply because we assume other people still cherish them. It takes a bit of bravery and authenticity to cause change (321–22). You might as well speak up; maybe someone will agree with you, and you’ll both be relieved!

Evidentiality in Matses

I’ve heard about it before, but on page 337, Leslie mentions the interesting tribal language written about by David Fleck in his 1,279-page doctoral dissertation and Guy Deutscher in Through the Language Glass and this NYT article. The language requires that speakers use a verb suffix that indicates evidentiality, i.e., the source of the information being communicated. Anything not self-evident is stated as a kind of supposition or hypothesis; use the wrong suffix and you’re lying.

You’re almost certainly not going to dive into that dissertation to learn more about evidentiality in Matses… but that’s exactly what I did. I found this cool table of verb suffixes. It’s on page 396:

I can’t imagine trying to figure out a language from scratch, which is exactly what David Fleck did. Hats off to you, Dr. Fleck.

When and Why I Read Born Liars

I was worried I’d already bought and read this book because it looked familiar. That was just because it has been on my wishlist, however. Glad to have bumped into it at a good price!

Genre: non-fiction (psychology)
Date started / date finished:  23-Dec-16 to 27-Dec-16
Length: 379 pages
ISBN: 9781849164252 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2011
Amazon link: Born Liars