The Best Big Lies?

Sometimes I slip into hyperbole and say things like:

Many folks figure that if evolution planned for them to believe a lie, they might as well believe a lie; that probably helps them achieve their goals.  But I want, first and foremost, to believe the truth.

Now I won’t accept any possible harm no matter how large to believe any truth no matter how small.  But I do have a very strong presumption toward telling and especially believing truth.

Many folks, however, say there are important cases where we are better off believing lies.  So I now ask you all: what are some big truths where we are overall better off to have most folks be mistaken?

I’m not looking for extreme rare examples like lying to keep Nazis from finding Jews in WWII; nor do secret passwords or launch codes count.  I’m looking for real and important examples today, where it is the lie, not just the uncertainty, that gives the advantage.

Yes, by mentioning such truths here you will risk more people believing them, but you might also convince many of us to join your cause to suppress important truths.  So you don’t need to tell us about our most important lies, but you do need to tell us about lies big enough to convince us that there are many big lies worth keeping.

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  • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

    I tend to agree with you. The only situation in which it would be important to spread a lie would be if the person concerned would use the truth for an evil end. This can really only occur with people who are both evil and unstoppable (like the old cliche Nazi example) — because if they are not evil they will not use it for something bad, and if they are not unstoppable then one can both speak the truth and prevent the evil.

    I don’t think the description “evil and unstoppable” applies to the human race as a whole. So I don’t think there are any situations in which a lie should be maintained among the public.

    And everytime I’ve heard people argue in favor of “pulling a fast one on the public,” it’s been to benefit their own, usually evil, ends.

  • Peter Twieg

    I think moral realism in general is a very useful good lie. Or at least, if not a lie, than a nonscientific belief.

    I think that it’s a good thing in general that most Americans are overoptimistic about their income mobility and relative status, as it blunts the appeal of redistributionist policies.

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      Those seem like opinions to me, rather than factual lies. I happen to be of the opinion that both of those “lies” are actually true.

      • Peter Twieg

        Well, people tend to have factually-inaccurate perceptions of their own relative wealth, abilities, and potential, almost always leaning in a positive direction. I don’t believe that these perceptions are mere non-falsifiable opinions.

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      For relative wealth, I could agree that it could at least be tested, but I don’t see how it’s helpful …

      For for the other two, how can you test opinions about “relative potential?” or “abilities?” or “social mobility?”

    • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com Katja Grace

      Moral realism is useful because it makes people follow your favored moral principles more? If it’s a lie not sure how it would be useful for all overall. Better for people if they know they can adopt any morals they like, in accordance with what they were going to do anyway for instance.

    • wwinter

      What about when implicit or explicit moral realism adds fuel to the fire of people’s moral convictions, leading them to perform acts with huge negative externalities? For example, terrorism and politico-religious crusades.

      Teaching people about moral anti-realism might, in fact, lead to better consequences. This is an empirical question, and so far one that hasn’t been tested. The historical evidence in favor of retaining moral realism as a useful fiction is far from conclusive.

  • maurile

    The theistic belief that everything happens for a reason, that it’s all part of a plan. (I think the belief helps people keep a positive outlook in difficult situations.)

    • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com Katja Grace

      ‘everything happens for a reason, but your wellbeing wasn’t planned for’ seems more comforting as well as true – if your misery is part of a transcendent plan you should be scared for the future, if it’s just an unintended upshot of a perfect plan for physics things will probably improve.

  • Doug S.

    Your vote doesn’t matter?

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      Actually, I think that fact is pretty important for people to know. It tells us:

      1) If you’re hoping the government will do what you want, you’re kidding yourself,
      2) The more local your government is, the more your vote counts. In a federal election, it doesn’t matter at all. In a school board election, it might. So if you want more political power, push for decentralization of power;
      3) If you want influence national politics, you either have to go into it, lobby congresspeople, or change public opinion on a massive scale.

      Fooling people into thinking their vote counts just makes them think that voting once every four years is enough to get what they want done. And it’s not. It’s worthless.

  • Adam M.

    The most common example brought up in this case is the old lie: “children make us happy.” I’m not sure if this one is a winner though…it’s hard to say whether this really makes us better off in general or individually. It’s hard to even be sure it’s a lie.

    • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com Katja Grace

      We are certainly better off if our parents believe it! This is the most persuasive one I’ve seen here.

      • Psychohistorian

        You’re better off if they believe raising children well makes them happy. If they never bothered having children, there would be no you to have an opinion about existing, which is very different from you ‘existing’ and being able to complain about not being born.

  • secretivek

    Some people’s lives are worth a lot, while others are worth almost nothing.

  • Sara

    How about the placebo effect of drugs and treatments? Some people actually benefit alot by believing in the efficacy of treatments.

    • http://singyourownlullaby.blogspot.com mariana_soffer

      Yeah, that one was my first thought here are the details:
      http://singyourownlullaby.blogspot.com/2009/06/placebo-effect.html

    • Constant

      Some people actually benefit alot by believing in the efficacy of treatments.

      In which case the treatments are efficacious. In Wikipedia we read, similarly:

      The intervention may cause the patient to believe that the treatment will change his/her condition; this belief sometimes causes the patient’s condition to change, a phenomenon known as the placebo effect.

      The patient is led to believe that the treatment will change his condition. Lo and behold, his condition changes. Not really all that great of a lie, then, is it? You can of course quibble by claiming that the precise mechanism by which the placebo works is withheld from the patient. But then, patients are often utterly ignorant of the mechanism of medicine, without the treatment thereby being classed a lie.

      The placebo effect might be better classed as a self-fulfilling prophecy than a lie. A self-fulfilling prophecy is not a lie.

      But if you want to call it a lie then okay. I just wanted to point out that it’s not quite like most of the other examples given here, many of which really are lies (i.e., they don’t cause themselves to come true, though they are alleged to cause something else to come true).

  • Oliver

    “You will surely be happier if you go to school and study diligently.”

    That’s an exaggeration, but if it gets more children to stay in school, it will be beneficial.

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      This could be phrased to be true and have the same effect … “you’ll make more money if you stay in school …” etc.

  • http://www.BetterCEO.com John Seiffer at http://www.BetterCEO.com

    The placebo effect is based on lies. There are documented studies showing that the effect is physiological – not just psychological. In other words it’s not just that perception of pain is diminished but actual, measurable bodily functions can be affected.

    In addition, I remember reading about a study where people had symptoms with an indeterminate cause. People whose doctors said (in essence) “That’s nothing to worry about” improved much more or faster than people whose doctors said things along the lines of “We really can’t determine the cause of your symptoms”

    • http://singyourownlullaby.blogspot.com mariana_soffer

      But if you think about it as a psychological treatment (kind of), not a blunt lie, there are actually physical body functions that are altered by this belief.
      http://singyourownlullaby.blogspot.com/2009/06/placebo-effect.html

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      The placebo effect is merely a collateral effect of the power of the mind to heal itself through optimism and positive thinking. It’s better to tell people the truth: “If you think positively, keep yourself relaxed, stay hopeful, and care for your spirit, you will do better.” That way they can get the benefits of the placebo effect — AND MORE — without the need for a fake pill.

      • http://tobias-schmidbauer.de/ Tobias Schmidbauer

        Playing devil’s advocate: Some people will have problems to think positively and stay relaxed and may worry all the time “OMG I’m thinking too negatively: I will stay ill.”. Some sort of nocebo effect. Taking pills is a no-brainer, there’s not that much you can do wrong.

  • http://kburke.org Kevin

    Santa Claus. In general, the idea that buying/having more things makes us happier.

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      There’s a difference between buying/having more things, and believing in Santa Claus. Do you think it would be better for the general public to honestly, seriously, believe in Santa?

    • Psychohistorian

      This may very well not be a net positive. Particularly since it implies the inverse, that not being able to buy or have more things should make us more miserable. People aspiring to higher incomes may or may not be a net utility gain versus having an accurate perspective on how happiness works.

  • kebko

    “There are unverifiable cosmic rewards for being good.”

    “Death isn’t the end.”

    Or, here’s a more controversial one:

    “A fetus isn’t human.”

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      How are those beneficial?

      • kebko

        The first one seems self-evident.

        The second one could lead to a more peaceful existence & peaceful death, while our biases would still lead us to try to live fulfiling lives.

        In the third one, I’m suggesting that for many abortions, everyone gains from the act except for the fetus, so it benefits everyone but the fetus to use a belief system that doesn’t account for any rights assigned to the fetus.

  • pwno

    Some false beliefs function as, overall, beneficial self-fulfilling prophecies. But it’s hard to prove they’re a net benefit precisely because they are false. .

    Useful false beliefs take advantage of some cognitive loop-hole that may differ from person to person. Because of this, it’s hard, and maybe impossible, to say that one false belief can be beneficial to all humans. You would really have to examine each case individually in order to assess whether there will be an expected net benefit throughout one’s expected lifetime

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      Unfortunately, this idea can’t be experimentally tested, because it’s impossible to compare what a person would do with the accurate information to what she did with the inaccurate information. We assume the self-fulfilling prophecies are beneficial, but there’s no experimental evidence to support that conclusion.

      Seems like a false dichotomy to argue “making a rational choice off bad information can sometimes be better than making an irrational choice off good information.” You’re rolling the dice, hoping that the bad info ends up being helpful.

      Why not just make a rational choice off good information? Isn’t that the best choice available?

      And if so, is the bad info really a “good lie,” or just a “risky lie that happened to be good this time because the person believing it would have made a bad choice if they had the truth.”

      • pwno

        Agree,

        Also, it doesn’t make sense to say that the rational decision could be to “have a false belief” because in order to make that decision, you would have to compare that outcome against “having a true belief.” But in order for a false belief to work, you must truly believe in it — you cannot deceive yourself into believing the false belief after knowing the truth! It’s like figuring out that taking a placebo leads to the best outcome, yet knowing it’s a placebo no longer makes it the best outcome.

        Maybe someone that knows you really well, and you rationally trust his recommendations, can be the decider of whether to give you false information or not.

  • Michmill

    What about downplaying the danger of a potential disease outbreak? Our society is not built to be resilient to global shocks, with many just in time processes, and in general the publc may not take correct actions. Telling the truth–that this is likely a minor disease but has a 2% chance of being a major one will just incite panic without actually improving public health. Yes, authorities should know the truth, but consistent panic–or a blasé public–should be avoided by telling that large lie.

  • Benquo

    America (or most other representative systems) is a democracy where the people’s will is made law.

    People believe this far out of proportion to its truthfulness, and it does a lot to promote civil order.

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      Does it really promote civil order? I think most folks know there’s a gaping chasm between the “will of the people” and the “law of the land.” Some people resort to terrorism in the face of that fact. Some people give up. Some people go into politics. But how many people over about 8th or 9th grade really think the law is the will of the people? Whose will?

  • Cog

    Perhaps the biggest, most socially useful lie is that life has some essential meaning and purpose. If most people couldn’t believe that, we’d probably have chaos.

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      I know a lot of people who believe that who don’t resort to chaos. I personally believe that we were purposely designed to invent our own purposes. Haven’t rioted lately.

      • Cog

        I haven’t rioted either, and it’s probably safe for relatively isolated individuals to realize this “truth”, but if society as a whole believed it – watch out. And I agree about inventing purposes – we make our own meaning; but if you really believe that we were “pruposely designed to do so”, is that not your “essential meaning and purpose”? So of course you don’t riot. Looking meaninglessness straight in the face without blinking is another matter altogether, especially on the scale of a whole culture.

  • gwern

    A lot of politically correct stuff seems like useful big lies.

    For example, that there are no important racial differences. If people generally accepted that, say, blacks are less intelligent than east Asians or whites, are they going to continue to judge people on their merits and keep in mind that that’s only a weak statistical generalization? No, of course not. They’ll just adopt quick & easy racial prejudices.

    • pwno

      Since people overgeneralize certain traits predicted by race, political correctness might be overdone. But, being PC is important on not just correcting your own bias, but protecting the spread of bias. You may correctly know racial differences, but by you not being PC, you are contributing to the spread of a racist meme.

      • Cytokine

        But if you are PC, you are being a liar and being caught means rhetorical suicide. People tend to react strongly to lies, you know? Pathos and all that.

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      It is not so useful for the scientists that lose their jobs over telling the truth:

      http://timtyler.org/political_correctness/

  • http://esr.ibiblio.org/ Eric S. Raymond

    Contributing to the spread of a racist meme?

    I’m with P.C. Hodgell on this one: “What can be destroyed by the truth should be.” To the extent there are significant racial differences (not something I’m making a claim about just now) denying that truth in aboveground discussion empowers the racist haters by making the side of truth and honesty their side.

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      Is this a good thing?

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Lee_Daniel_Crocker Lee Daniel Crocker

    – “The police can ensure your safety”
    – “The military can protect us from foreign agression”
    – “The government can manage the economy”
    – “If you commit a crime, you’ll be caught and punished”
    – “In the end, people get what they deserve”

    • JonathanL

      – “The police can ensure your safety”
      – “The military can protect us from foreign agression”
      – “If you commit a crime, you’ll be caught and punished”
      – “In the end, people get what they deserve”

      I understand these as in they help keep social order.

      However,

      – “The government can manage the economy”

      This may have the same benefit as the others, but I think we would all be better off if people did not believe this…

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      I think people would be better off knowing those are all lies. If you don’t believe the cops will protect you, you’ll do a better job of protecting yourself. If you recognize the military cannot effectively protect us from foreign aggression right now, you might support changes in military policy. If you recognize that bad guys don’t always get caught, again, you’ll do a better job of protecting yourself. And if you recognize that people don’t always get what they deserve, you’ll reset your lifegoals to something other than “getting what you deserve” — to “getting what you want.”

      • LeBleu

        – “If you commit a crime, you’ll be caught and punished”

        It would be significantly to my advantage for potential criminals to believe this, as it reduces the odds of a crime happening to me.

        However, on the other hand, I would need evidence that most people believe this lie. I don’t think that is true, I think most people already recognize that criminals don’t always get caught. I also recall some specific evidence (in Freakonomics I think) that criminals recognize that decreasing the change they get caught reduces the effectiveness of the punishment if they do. (Specifcally, the evidence I am thinking of was that increasing the penalty for commiting robbery when a gun is present, which decreased the difference between the penalty for murder and the penalty for robbery with a gun, increased the murder rate in convenience store robberies. The benefit of not having a witness started outweighing the marginal increase in penalty.)

    • jimmy

      The first one strikes me as an astonishingly bad example. Believing that can get you killed!

      Every time someone defends themselves/others with a concealed firearm, they are protecting what would have been lost if they had blindly trusted police.

      You may think the (foolish) peace of mind that can be had by believing the ‘big things’ (that you don’t influence) are OK is worth it, but when it comes to managing your own life, truth is very important.

  • clay

    It seems like with all of the problems that come with natural language, a pretty useful lie is believing that abstract ideas, concepts, and words have more meaning or are more well defined than they actually are.

    For example, we can have a good discussion about useful lies without having any sort of concrete definition of truth.

    • Ansel F

      Clay, this is the best comment I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s meta, and it contradicts itself. Beautiful.

  • http://www.reelnerds.com John

    A big truth where we are overall better off to have most folks be mistaken: that precious metals have any value other than their industrial use.

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      Why does that make us better off?

    • LeBleu

      I’m assuming that you are claiming it is better off that most folks are mistaken about that, because it maintains the value of substances such as gold as a potential medium of exchange. If that is not the supposed benefit of this lie, please clarify.

      I disagree that it is true that precious metals don’t have any value other than their industrial use. The fact that a precious metal is inherently scarce also has value for use as a medium of exchange. (At least, if you have a preference for a medium exchange that cannot easily be inflated by the government. Personally I find bit-backed currency (there are way more dollars than pieces of paper called dollars) sufficiently efficient as long as it is backed by a government not likely to turn to hyperinflation. I don’t see the advantage of tying control of the supply of money to advances in mining technology and debased currency detection.)

    • http://www.QandO.net Bryan Pick

      They do have value besides their industrial uses. They are naturally fairly scarce and difficult to replicate economically, they do not tarnish, and they hold together fairly well at normal environmental temperatures, but they can be melted or broken apart with rudimentary technology. Those properties make them superb as a stable store of value.

      They’re also nice to look at.

  • Constant

    One or more of the following seems a plausible claim about each of the big lies so far proposed:

    a) it’s not really a lie, or

    b) people don’t really believe it all that much, or

    c) it doesn’t really play all that great a role in making things better.

  • http://lesswrong.com/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    The chief example that comes to mind is the hurried cover-up on cold fusion once they realized it could be used to cheaply produce nuclear weapons (not by direct detonation, but by producing cheap neutrons that could transform depleted uranium to plutonium).

    (Of course I’m joking. If I weren’t joking I wouldn’t have made the comment.)

    • Phil R

      If you weren’t joking, and you knew that such a thing were possible, and someone asked you if you knew about it, would you speak the truth though your voice trembled, or would you lie?

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky

        It would depend on the exact circumstances, who was asking, and how I’d become party to the secret. If I’d been told in confidence then I would lie. Otherwise: if the person asking me had no need-to-know and I had promised them no loyalty, then I would lie. If the situation were such that I needed the other to be able to trust me, I would tell the truth – e.g. if I were actually being consulted on cold-fusion-coverup policy or some such. To me this seems like moral common sense, more or less; ideally, the circumstances under which you lie should be such as to create no doubt in your honesty when you actually want and need to be trusted, nor any doubt in your ability to keep a secret when someone is considering telling you a confidence. If these two forces were brought into conflict, the second would win, I think.

  • Err

    Some of the comments about “race” above are pretty misinformed by posters who likely think highly about their own intelligence. Try this instead:

    “Race” is a cultural construct. Non-constant (varying over time due to interbreeding, other causes of genetic shift), not consistent across cultures, and the subject of debate within cultures. Often so overbroad that it’s useless; it obscures far more than it reveals.

    So let’s go down a level and talk about what people think they MEAN when they say “race”: biogeographic identity (i.e., haplogroup). Ok, so now we have something we can’t simply identify by just looking at someone. We have to use genetic tests (which may not even be perfect). Once we start down that road, we may/will start to notice “hey, even between members of this haplogroup, ability/potential seems to vary widely. Hmm, maybe these groupings aren’t as useful for predictive purposes as we thought.” The next logical step? We start testing – and comparing – individual to individual. Now what’s happened? We’ve completely moved away from the idea that “grouping” – whether haplogroup, gender, or whatever inherent/accident of birth qualities matter, and move on to something far more useful – individual ability.

    Not only is this likely to be more useful, it’s also not terribly controversial. So the idea of being “PC” mattering might one day seem very silly if/when the science bears out the simple idea that many liberal thinkers have been putting forth for a long time – that “group” ability/potential means far, far less than individual ability.

    Finally, why is the subject of “group” ability/potential even all that interesting? Is there a member of any “inherent quality” group that’s unable to succeed in a modern society? Nope. It seems only interesting if you’re trying to breed a species of Ubermenschen.

    • Mike

      If what you say about “race” is true, then you must surely oppose all forms of affirmative action. Moreover, you’d even say that the Census Bureau and other government agencies should not keep track of “race” at all.

      Is that truly what you believe? I do not want to prejudge you.

      I know, though, that the same people who say, “Race is a social construct” are also the most ardent supporters of affirmative action. They are also the first to discuss the oppression of non-whites by whites. I’ve always found that to be a strange disconnect.

      Perhaps your view is intellectually consistent; and you, indeed, oppose any data collection and policy decisions based on “race.”

      • Michael Bishop

        Race is a social construct. By that I mean that cultural change can radically alter the way race functions in society. Furthermore, I believe we should promote cultural change which alters the way race functions in society.

        I see no reason these beliefs should force me to oppose public policy decisions based on “race.”

      • LeBleu

        If what you say about “race” is true, then you must surely oppose all forms of affirmative action. Moreover, you’d even say that the Census Bureau and other government agencies should not keep track of “race” at all.

        The information about “race” appears to be insufficient to conclude that affirmative action should be opposed.

        As I understand it, the whole basis of affirmative action is that for a long time period in the past, the majority belief was in the false concept of certain “races” being inferior, and hence members of those “races” were blocked from opportunities to improve their situation. (ex. blocked from education and high paying jobs) This belief also may still be common enough today to continue to block some members of those “races” from opportunities. Many of these benefits are proven to have cross-generational effects. (ex. you are more likely to go to college if your parents did, all else being equal.) So, the purpose of affirmative action is to attempt to restore the equal, individual characteristic based playing field that should have always been the case.

        At some point in time, affirmative action should manage to fully correct these past injustices and then can be stopped. However, to oppose affirmative action in the present, one must believe that has already occurred.

        Although I agree that “race” is a social construct, I do not believe that at this point in time the past harm from the belief has been fully mitigated. If at some point in time the evidence strongly supports that the past harm has been corrected, and that people are judged on their individual abilities (which of course vary genetically, so some haplogroups may have higher average abilities than others) rather than their socially constructed “race”, at that point in time I would oppose affirmative action.

      • Psychohistorian

        LeBlue – You wouldn’t have to believe that the situation has been remedied, you would have to believe two wrongs make a right, i.e. past discrimination can be fixed by present discrimination in the opposite direction, each of which would be clearly totally wrong without the other occurring (and interestingly the prior seems like it should be wrong even with the other occurring).

        I actually don’t have that strong of an opinion on affirmative action, but the “remedy past wrongs” is pretty much a “two wrongs make a right, or at least a not-as-wrong” claim.

      • http://lesswrong.com/user/SoullessAutomaton a soulless automaton

        Psychohistorian: So, is it wrong to forcibly take stolen goods back from a thief and return them to their original owner?

      • Err

        Affirmative action is a funny thing. Why do we really have it from purely theoretical perspective? To level the playing field by providing opportunities by giving certain people access to things which we have a limited supply of. That last part is the real problem. Why is there such a limited supply of opportunity? Why so few spots in schools? Why so few jobs of pay grade X? Direct all resources to fixing those problems. AA is a flimsy band-aid that covers up the real issue: too little opportunity in the first place.

        So while I think the idea of AA “comes from the right place” as far as intent goes, it’s addresses the wrong problem.

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      There seems to be lots of ridiculous PC nonsense about race in this thread. Strange to see it here.

  • http://singyourownlullaby.blogspot.com mariana_soffer

    I think it is better no lies, if you are wise enough, none are needed, cause they do not make anything better

  • Eric Johnson

    If people generally accepted that, say, blacks are less intelligent than east Asians or whites, are they going to continue to judge people on their merits and keep in mind that that’s only a weak statistical generalization? No, of course not. They’ll just adopt quick & easy racial prejudices.

    You’ve got a point for sure. But,

    #1, don’t many people largely, or at least substantially, apply prejudices anyway? Even if they don’t know/accept the concepts of IQ and g, everyone knows racial means on public school test scores diverge consistently. It’s not really illogical to be somewhat prejudiced about some individual’s potential on account of such differences, while also believing that all such differences are due solely to more-or-less tractable social factors, and totally uninfluenced by genetic factors.

    #2, I think the consequences of suppressing information in this area are too severe. I’m admittedly influenced by personal experience. I basically hated my own country and the West generally – since I thought that Africa, eg, could readily be industrialized and relieved of horrid infectious diseases, were it not that westerners preferred to allocate resources to video games and plastic surgery. Now I know that Africa cannot be readily industrialized using present technology, that malthusian aspects apply, etc, and I love the USA. But hating the USA was logical on the postulates I was born to (which are strongly egalitarian ones, since I’m under 30 and grew up in an affluent area). My little personal ideological peregrinations are not exactly high tragedy, but I suspect the more general enervation of the west due to “western guilt” is.

  • http://lessertruth.wordpress.com/ marcio brk

    The question is loaded. I cannot answer it without acknowledging that the distinction between “truth” and “lie” is useful. In fact, i tend to suspect that the proverbial “many folks” were in fact telling you that the distinction is fuzzy and unreliable, and that you shifted their argument to make them say that believing in lies is good.

    Need i elaborate? Of course you can come up with a number of examples where “lie” and “truth” are obviously discernible, but that does not counter the fact that life is full of circumstances where search-for-truth is a useless heuristic.

    In any situation where you can safely use such crude criteria as “true” and “false”, the quality of being true is so remotely removed from the things at hand that we can’t learn anything about truth from them. Just like you wont learn anything about electricity from examining a piece of wood, despite electricity being the very thing that holds wood’s molecules together. In other words, overusing the word “truth” might be a good way of life (though i doubt that), but it is certainly terrible epistemology.

  • http://lessertruth.wordpress.com/ marcio brk

    And, just for the fun of it, any lie P that conformed to the criteria, would also admit a truth P’ of the form:

    “P is a lie but you must believe in it for the reason R”

    which would be MORE useful than P because it would also cover the fringe cases where P is not useful.

    • LeBleu

      That only admits the truth P’ if someone is able to simultaneously believe that P is a lie and act as if P is true. If people are not able to do so, then knowing P’ would eliminate the utility of P, making it less useful than P. (This is assuming that any lie P ever can conform to the criteria, which I doubt.)

  • David Jinkins

    The American dream lie.

    It is best for me that everyone else believe that working hard will lead to success, because this will cause people to produce more goods and invent more new stuff, and generally make the economy grow faster than it would otherwise. I benefit from the greater variety and quality and lower price of the goods in the expanded economy. I also benefit from the higher wages available due to growth.

    Of course, individuals who work suboptimally hard are worse off…

    • http://ungtss.blogspot.com ungtss

      The American Dream is a lie?

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    “You are very beautiful, I will always love you.”

  • Neil

    That the inevitable trajectory of Western civilisation is toward greater freedom, greater knowledge, higher culture, greater fairness, and greater humanity.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    “Even if your partner has become old, pudgy and irritable; even if he or she never fit within your concept of the ideal mate, if you sustain your conviction that he’s a prince or she’s a goddess, you are happy.

    In fact, I have often thought that self deception evolved, at least in part, to enable us to preserve our partnerships long enough to rear our young. Self deception not only gives us hapiness but helps us keep the beat in the eternal dance of reproduction.” – Helen Fisher.

    See also: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-the-name-love/200804/
    positive-illusions-in-romantic-love-youre-the-nearest-thing-heaven

  • Robert

    You have free will and can make choices.

    You are better than average.

    What matters is how hard you try, not your innate characteristics.

    And probably:

    There are no important differences between races.

    • Jarno Virtanen

      You have free will and can make choices.

      I suggest this too. I think it has been shown that not believing in free will, for whatever reason, increases all sorts of aggressive and destructive behaviors.

  • Jim Savage

    In Game Theory, the Stackelberg Game shows explicitely one mechanism by which information can make someone worse off.

    The game describes how when two firms must sequentially choose quantities for production before selling their produce at market, the second firm will choose a quantity that is their `strategic best response’ to the first firm’s choice. The first firm knows the second firm will make thic choice, and so optimises their production around it. The result is generally (depending on the game setup) higher profits for the first mover, and lower profits for the follower.

    Given this, the general insight is “when one’s strategic behaviour is affected by others’ actions, and where there are no institutions of trust or law, having knowledge of others’ actions does not necessarily make one better off.”

  • http://truth-about-women.blogspot.com Jack Lover

    The “techniques” man can use to help female to achieve vaginal orgasm.

    I have written a shortish blog post on the techniques, and it starts by explaining why women should not read it. Men can read it here.

    In short: you need another person to help you reach higher sexual gratification, which is against the “lie” that drove sexual revolution: women are in charge of their own sexuality. If somebody becomes aware of the technique while believing the lie, they will become defensive, and thus resistant to the technique because they will see when it is being used. Thus, women need to be shown by a man using the technique that it works, instead of being told how it works.

  • aviad rozenhek

    how about common lies, such as “i’m special”, “justice is served by the law”, “democracy expresses the will of the nation”, “life is meaningful and worth living”, “size is irrelevant”, “you are mortal and there’s a 99.9% chance that you will not be here in 120 years”
    or indeed any lie that helps people be content instead of facing the harsh truths of their lives.

    one could argue that knowing truth is a trial one can overcome in order to better themselves, I think truths are like mountaineering, in that they are not for just anybody.

  • jb

    “A great leader can get us through tough times”

    It isn’t the leader that gets us through the tough times – it’s the people’s willingness to be optimistic about that leader’s actions that gets us through the tough times. The leader’s actions are largely irrelevant.

  • http://www.maxmore.com Max More

    Robin, have you read: Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind, by Shelly E. Taylor? He makes a detailed case for the benefits of self-delusion. Taylor argues that good mental health (resilience, persistence, and so on) is related to three key positive illusions: unrealistically positive views of the self, illusions of control, and unrealistic optimism.

    I briefly reviewed the book here

    Max

  • Granite26

    Newton’s Laws, as well as our inate (and often wrong) sense of physics and proportion.

    Newton’s Laws aren’t physical truths the way most people believe them, but they are true enough for shorthand. (This is a whole catagory of ‘the world works like this’ beliefs)

    Optical Illusions are perfect examples of things we see and believe to be true, but aren’t. There’s quite a few examples on why the illusions are better for us than reality.

  • tg

    “The economy is sound.”

  • Eric Schoenberg

    People playing a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma are better off cooperating rather than defecting.

    If everyone believed this “lie” (and there is research evidence that many people do), they would get better outcomes than if they didn’t. As a more general principle: you should choose the prosocial action in a commons dilemma situation.

  • Granite26

    Not advertising that the FDA is regulating cigarettes /sarcasm

  • fenn

    That you will die and that will be the end. No matter whether you repented, arranged to have your sweetbread pickled and frozen, etc.

    If Robin really believed the stakes were infinite, would he drive a ragtop?
    (and I don’t begrudge him the pleasure a bit)

  • Charles

    There is nothing important in the fine print.

  • Robert Koslover

    Here’s one that people always want to believe:
    “What a cute baby!”

  • Steve

    It is extremely important for society to believe that “Natural Human Rights” (and most other metaphysical concepts) have some kind of independent Platonic reality. It would probably be very difficult to build a modern industrial nation-state from scratch where all of your citizens held nihilistic or existential belief systems.

  • NR

    “The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”
    – H. L. Mencken

  • John

    The lie that . . . well, come to think of it, better you don’t know.