Thursday, May 25, 2017

About Lying

The cover story of the June 2017 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC explores "Why We Lie." A pie chart of motives for lying or deception includes almost a dozen categories, such as personal gain, covering up a mistake or misdeed, playing pranks, hoaxing people for entertainment, self-aggrandizement, economic advantage, and the "social or polite" lie, what's often called "little white lies"—to avoid minor embarrassment, making someone else feel bad, etc. Everybody commits dishonesty sometimes. Cognitive scientists view the emergence of the ability to lie as an important childhood developmental process. Sophistication in deceit requires a well-developed "theory of mind," the capacity to see the world from someone else's viewpoint. Perpetrating falsehoods seems to have a connection with the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing emotions. The more often we lie, the weaker the amygdala's response becomes, so lying grows easier. Because our default inclination is to trust other people unless they give us reasons to distrust, the liar starts with an advantage. Also, familiar information is more likely to "feel" true, so the more we hear an alleged fact, the more we're likely to believe it. That's why publicly refuting misinformation is a risky endeavor; by repeating the statement, even to disprove it, you fix it in the audience's mind. Yet one more reason to resist immersing ourselves in a social-media bubble of information sources repeating stuff we already agree with.

The article includes capsule portraits of famous deceivers, such as P. T. Barnum and Richard Nixon. Try to pick up a copy of the issue; it offers much to mull over.

Have you seen the comedy LIAR, LIAR? A boy wishes that for one day his father, a lawyer, cannot tell a lie. Naturally, chaos ensues. Not only does the beneficiary (or victim) of the wish find himself incapable of the deceit his profession demands, he can't withhold the truth by remaining silent or even ask a question framed in such a way as to evoke an untrue answer. He tries with little success to explain to his son why adults sometimes have to lie. It's hard to visualize human society functioning without occasional untruths. Carried to its literal conclusion, this gift or curse would make it impossible even to give an equivocal answer to avoid hurting someone's feelings on a trivial subject or, at the other extreme, to deceive the Gestapo or a slave catcher on the whereabouts of a fleeing Jew or slave.

A species incapable of lying would have a very different culture from ours. If they couldn't understand the very concept of untruth, they would of course be disastrously vulnerable in a confrontation with human invaders. The relentlessly rational horses in GULLIVER'S TRAVELS don't lie and have a very hard time grasping the concept of deceit when Gulliver mentions it. In the original STAR TREK, it's rumored that Vulcans never lie. They certainly understand what lying is, however, and in one episode Spock points out, "It is not a lie to keep the truth to oneself." The series later confirms that Vulcans, like every known sapient species, do tell lies when deceit seems logically appropriate. (We see Spock engaged in deceit on several occasions, in fact.)

From the opposite angle, societies may differ in their judgment of what constitutes a lie; outsiders may think locals are lying when the locals don't see it that way. In some Earth cultures (e.g., Japanese) a blunt answer of "No" is considered rude. Instead, a politely evasive reply is expected and understood. Foreign visitors may think they've been lied to when any member of that culture would clearly understand the courteous "lie" as a negative response.

Mark Twain's little-known story "Was It Heaven? Or Hell?" presents a thought experiment on what might happen if any form of lying, even for the most compassionate purpose, were condemned as an unforgivable sin. Two maiden aunts, nursing their widowed niece and her daughter through a fatal illness, lie to the mother for her peace of mind, telling her the girl is well and happy when, in fact, both are dying. At the end, the aunts finally die and face postmortem judgment. They have always adhered to strict moral standards, one of the most important being that "speech was restricted to absolute truth, iron-bound truth, implacable and uncompromising truth, let the resulting consequences be what they might." They refuse to make any distinction between "a lie that helps and a lie that hurts." They are also kind, loving women who adore their niece and grand-niece and were told by the doctor that the sick woman must be protected from all excitement. (The doctor also declares that he tells lies, "a million a day," and so does every physician.) Which principle should prevail? To the vast majority of twentieth- and twenty-first-century readers, the answer seems obvious, but apparently in the culture of that time and place, the dilemma was real. The question in the title remains unresolved.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment