December 24, 2019
In an era of alternative facts, the science behind deception is more relevant than ever. For our February 2018 “Naked Issue,” Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Michael Slepian, a social psychologist and professor at Columbia Business School, and Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, a journalist who has written about lying, talk about truth, lies, and the grey matter in between. Without further ado.
Allure: Why are some people so much better at lying than others?
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee: There was a study where brain scans of habitual liars showed they had extra white matter in their brains. That may make them better at connecting disparate ideas — in other words, at lying. Maybe lying changes their brains over time, or maybe the extra white matter predisposes them to lying more easily. So, they see the benefits of lying in various situations, and they keep doing it.
Allure: Does that mean liars are smarter?
YB: Certainly, being able to connect different ideas is a fundamental aspect of creativity, and that’s one form of smarts.
Robert Feldman: Studies show criminals get caught when they’re questioned by the police because they’re terrible liars — and it’s associated with IQ. If they’re not the smartest people, they can’t keep their story straight.
Allure: Where does that leave the rest of us?
RF: Lying is so much a part of everyday discourse that we do it without thinking about it. What’s really interesting is you can ask somebody to look back on a conversation, and invariably they’ll say, “I was totally truthful.” Show them a video, and they’ll find that’s just not the case. In 10 minutes, you probably tell three lies to someone you’re just getting to know. We lie less to the people we know the best, but those tend to be very big lies—usually lies about fidelity.
YB: It speaks to our innate, reflexive ability to lie, but we’re also hardwired to trust other people. We wouldn’t have evolved as a social species if we always had to stop, think, verify the things people are telling us. Tfundamentaldamental to our existence, even though we abuse others’ trust by telling small lies every day.
RF: But you don’t have to go to an evolutionary explanation. We accept lies when they’re beneficial to us, like hearing you look good or did a good job.
Michael Slepian: There’s some really interesting research that shows if you witness someone lying but you know it’s to make another person feel better, you trust them more even though you just saw them lying.
Allure: There’s a theory called radical honesty that posits that utter openness — what you think, feel, do, even plan to do — is the key to fostering intimacy in any relationship. Should we be totally honest all the time?
YB: I have to think it’s a great principle in a lot of respects. If you’re attracted to a work colleague and tell your partner, you could build trust. If you’ve had extramarital affairs and you come clean, it takes the weight off your shoulders and could earn some confidence.
RF: But isn’t there a nontrivial possibility that confessing will damage the relationship so profoundly that you shouldn’t be truthful? You can’t go through life being 100 per cent honest. We just don’t like people who are so blunt. You’d have a terrible social life.
MS: Keeping a secret might not always be easy but may be the right thing to do. We keep secrets for two reasons: to protect ourselves and to protect the people we care about. Secrecy isn’t all bad. The average person has 13 secrets right now, 5 of which they’ve never told anyone. The most common of those 5 is called “extra-relational thoughts” — you’re attracted to someone who’s not your partner — and most secrets involve sex, infidelity, and lying. We used to think the act of hiding a secret hurt our well-being, but my research shows that’s not so. It’s having to live with the secret — how often you think about it — that’s hurtful. It consumes your resources, and any other task seems more challenging, whether that’s how much effort it takes to climb a hill, walk a distance, or do a project at work.
YB: So, it’s indeed true what they say — the truth will set you free.
MS: Disclosing your secrets is what creates intimacy; people realize you’re opening up to them, which signals you trust them. It’s key to forming relationships—as long as you’re not too personal, too soon. That’s weird.
RF: To use a scientific term.
MS: Ha! And confiding a secret improves your well-being — you don’t even have to tell the person you’re keeping the secret from. If you talk to anyone about it, you’re in better shape. You know, well-being comes in two forms: feeling good and having meaning. As soon as we decide to keep a secret, it feels unresolved. We tend to think about unresolved things a lot. So, the secret keeps coming to mind, and we start interpreting what it means to not be honest with loved ones. We think I’m not being authentic with the people around me. I’m not living life the way I’m supposed to be. It hurts well-being in the sense of life having meaning.
RF: Truthfulness is a fundamental virtue — it’s motherhood and apple pie. Every time we lie in a relationship it has an effect, even if the lie goes unnoticed by the recipient. We know we’re being deceptive, and somehow that dishonesty just weighs on the relationship. While I don’t think it’s realistic or necessarily valuable to be truthful all the time, it is essential to be as truthful as we possibly can. Truthfulness is a core value.
Allure: But we hear lies and we tell lies every day. What does that do to us?
RF: I go back to Bill Clinton, a very powerful and conspicuousness individual who lied, everybody knew it, and the consequences? He kept his job and was the most popular politician for a long time. It told people, “It’s perfectly fine to lie. You can get away with it.” We’re seeing it to the nth degree with this current president. Trump is so blatant about lying and so uncaring about it, it creates an environment where it makes it easier to lie, and it teaches a horrible lesson to children.
MS: It boggles the mind that people have seen him as dishonest and simultaneously as authentic — being himself involves lying, but at least he’s being himself. It’s going to change the way a lot of people approach their own image. But there’s another side to this coin. People are speaking up about things we haven’t talked enough about. Sexual harassment is all over the news, and that’s a good thing — when people speak up, we realize there’s a serious problem and it needs to change.
YB: Something profound is happening in our society. The worse the state of truth gets, in a bizarre way, the more we realize facts matter. There’s been a rallying cry in the last year. On the one hand, you have people just demolishing the edifice of truth on which civilized society stands. But on the other hand, in response to that, you have people who are building a new bedrock where you can’t push away facts — about climate change or sexual harassment — simply because they’re inconvenient. That movement is less visible than the lies, but it’s there.
RF: I’m a little more pessimistic. Just look at the reaction to Roy Moore: There seems to be very clear evidence that he was a dirty old man, and yet there were people who just stood by him. To me, that signifies that there’s a segment of the population that’s willing to avoid and to ignore the truth. For me, the jury is out in terms of how this [battle between truth and lies] plays out eventually — talk to me again in 2020.
YB: Yeah, but to my point, I was at a conference at Stanford called Decepticon — a yearly conference on deception. I met a science journalist at Santa Clara University there who is working on a model for separating fake news from real news by giving content trust scores on Twitter. The population is being called upon to do the same thing reporters have always done: decide what version of a story that’s given to you is closest to reality. Truth matters.
This article originally appeared on allure.