The Future Of Lies

The Economist says lie-detectors bring “disaster”:

The truth of the matter—honestly—is that this would lead to disaster, for lying is at the heart of civilisation. … Homo sapiens has turned lying into an art. … The occasional untruth makes domestic life possible (“Of course your bum doesn’t look big in that”), is essential in the office (“Don’t worry, everybody’s behind you on this one”), and forms a crucial part of parenting (“It didn’t matter that you forgot your words and your costume fell off. You were wonderful”). … The truly scary prospect … speaking truth to power would no longer be brave: it would be unavoidable. (more)

Me-thinks they exaggerate. Yes, humans were designed for an environment between the extremes of complete transparency and complete opacity. Our ancestors got away with some but not all lies. But in the last few centuries humans have adapted reasonably well to more opaque environments. New transparency techs may just bring back forager levels of social visibility, levels to which humans are already quite well adapted.

In the modern world, people often interact with others about whom they know far less than their forager ancestors knew, and with far greater abilities to consciously manage appearances. For example, when firms and nations now deal with each other, they can often spend days thinking about their next response, and have large teams studying what that response should be. And yet it mostly works out ok.

Good lie detector tech might just bring us back to forager levels of social transparency. Clever gadgets which can read our micro expressions or subtle features of our tone of voice may just tell us the sorts of things that foragers could see because they studied the same few dozen folks their entire lives, and gossiped endlessly about their behavior and (poker-like) tells. For those of us now used to farmer and industry levels of social opacity, this transparency might take some getting used to. But it is likely well within the range of human adaptability.

The more interesting question to me is what happens when we have both kinds of tech, say face readers to show subtle micro expressions but also masks to block such reading. Voice readers to read subtle tones and voice modifiers to hide such tells. Which techs will we actually deploy?

On the one hand, we might expect people who are socially close, such as families or teams, to encourage internal transparency and discourage opacity aids. This might be seen as a sign of trust and a basis for close coordination. If you want to keep hiding things from me, maybe I should worry about what you are trying to hide.

On the other hand, we expect continued aggressive use of ways to manage appearances between distant less trusting organizations. I just don’t see big firms and nations agreeing to forego their many abilities to manage their appearances. And since the folks participating in such interactions would have high status, e.g., diplomats and CEOs, then being practiced and skilled in high opacity situations would be a sign of social status. This would encourage more opacity among lesser CEO etc. wannabes.

It seems hard to tell if on the whole they’ll have more transparency or more opacity. The safest prediction, it seems to me, is more variation in social visibility. People will have to be somewhat skilled in dealing both with high transparency and high opacity. And which situations should be which may well be a matter of great dispute.

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  • Since I don’t work as a lawyer anymore, I lie much less.

  • On the one hand, we might expect people who are socially close, such as families or teams, to encourage internal transparency and discourage opacity aids…On the other hand, we expect continued aggressive use of ways to manage appearances between distant less trusting organizations.

    It seems to me that the latter outcome you mention is far more likely (and presently visible) than the former. At all levels of social closeness and firm or government size, are we not seeing more obfuscation? I would argue the phenomenon extends even to close social settings.

    If obfuscation is high status then ultimately the attempt to visibly uncover it with technological aids will probably be a signal of low status. I predict that any tech will only be deployed invisibly (for status reasons) and therefore that the live responses to such lie-detection aids will be impossible relative to the obfuscated/low-tech environment where we currently operate. This reminds me of your writing from April.

    If anything, the tech has promise for the ways we evaluate past interactions. Perhaps we will use obfuscation technology to better manage our present appearance and lie-detection technology to improve our analysis of past interaction.

  • Thursday

    The problem as I see it is that it will be strangers who can tell if we’re lying, not people you already have a relationship with.

    In hunter gatherer groups, people may know you’re lying, but they also know if you’re a good or a bad person overall, so if you’re a good guy or gal, they’ll generally assume you have a good reason not to be telling the truth.

    But in a modern society, it will be strangers who will be able to force you to either divulge information or else give the impression of being a bad person. I can imagine that being incredibly stressful.

  • Thomas Bartscher

    Strange, in the circles I run in it is deemed bad behaviour to do this kind of stuff. Not, that those people don’t do that occasionally, but we hardly see it as keeping our social environment intact but rather as a bad habit that is to be overcome.
    It always amazes me how often people say, that lying is central for the survival of human culture – I have only seen evidence to the contrary, as honesty as the default even in sensible areas can help reduce long term stress where you wonder what anyone thinks of you.
    I wonder whether those people are tying to rationalize their own inability to work up the guts to be honest about their feelings.

  • Brett

    I think it would be awkward at first, but then you’d get used to being unable to outright lie to people without them noticing that they’re doing. The benefits would be huge as well, particularly since you could tell when someone was about to get angry and/or upset to head them off.

  • Albert Ling

    Lying is overrated. It’s amazing how many small lies people make. I agree with Sam Harris that if you try and avoid it at all costs, it will make your life better and reduce anxiety in the long run. Also, having a reputation as a truth-teller will make everything you say be taken more seriously. And should a situation arise where you absolutely have to lie or the consequences are too great, then your lie also carries more weight. In poker, it’s the tight guys that are the ones who can bluff successfully without getting called!

  • melior

    Also worth considering are situations in which people want to be lied to for reasons of their own. Miracle “cures”, get-rich-quick schemes, no-effort diets, etc. have in common an audience that, were technology to make it more difficult to preserve the mutually convenient opacity, might seek out situations in which they could bypass such technology.

    Alternatively, many livelihoods based primarily on deception might simply become less highly lucrative than they are today relative to those based on transparent performance.

  • Andrew Kemendo

    Lying will increasingly be not only impossible to get away with, but will finally be recognized as terribly inefficient in getting information into markets and letting markets clear.

    The reality is, that lying in any fashion is going to be decreasing as a marginally dominating strategy and the implications of lying will be taken as strongly into consideration as fraudulent currency is today – accurate information being the currency of the future.

    The more transparent, and lie free any organization or individual is the more efficient they will be at transmitting their true capabilities (they won’t waste time and resource politicking) and will be able to re-invest those capabilities into a stronger product or service – everyone in the end will be better off.

    The naivete of the world won’t increase, the capability to see through liars will.

  • Prakash

    Any development on this front might accelerate the creation of a thousand nations and people splitting into their own tribes with each one having its own level of opacity.

  • Albert Ling

    Oh, and can’t liars learn to start believing their lies?

    • Jacek Lach

      Then it’s not a lie, it’s just being wrong. They lose the advantage of knowing the truth and cannot as easily exploit the believers.

      Unless they design an elaborate scheme where they condition themselves to obey previously crafted instructions without understanding them, create the instructions then make themselves believe whatever lie is important (and, additionally, believe that they are not executing previously imprinted instructions, such that a simple ‘Are you following a plan you do not understand/agree with?’ cannot catch them). But that is a lot of effort for simple scams.

  • Dave

    The slant I detect imbedded somewhere in much of this is that lies that business and government tell are a reflection of the” corrupt power structure” as opposed to an ideal state of collective happiness we would have without the power structure. Lies by individual are more benign omissions like abstaining from calling people ugly to their face.

    Actually the most common lie is to not tell. But is this really a lie? I don’t need to know if my doctor is visiting a prostitute, though he will be ruined if it comes out. I see no duty to tell people they are ugly. Besides you might change you mind.

    The most common destructive lie people tell is that they will do something for you, but is this really a lie? They might have intended to do it but without discipline this is hard. People are lazy and no good. Not doing what you say is irresponsible and erodes one’s credibility.

    I see no detection mechanism which will detect these people other than a good memory. Out and out lying is most common when a person is caught doing something he is not supposed to. Here is when high tech comes in.

    The best example is drug testing. If you do these on people and ask them why they test positive you will see what big liars people can be. But they don’t lie until they are caught, they just don’t tell, and why should they?

  • Mark M

    Wow, I’m surprised to see so many predict the death or decline of lying. Embedded in these predictions is the lament “Oh, and can’t liars learn to start believing their lies?”

    Therein lies the problem. (Pun intended). If you hear something you believe to be a lie often enough you begin to believe it anyway. If you tell a lie long enough you begin to believe it, even if you made up the lie yourself. (I’m too lazy to link to the studies – they’re out there). Some continue to believe statements that have been proven false and denounced by the person who originally made the claim. (How many in the country believe Barack Obama is Muslim, or that he was not born in the U.S.?)

    In other words, lying can be successful even when the lie is known to be a lie.

    Meanwhile, successful politicians will be those who are good enough actors to fool the lie detectors. They may even learn to fool themselves before publicly stating their lies where a new and improved lie detector could detect them. It’s only a lie if you don’t believe it – and you can learn to believe things that you know are lies.

    With the ability to alter communications to remove signs of lying as well as the ability to detect lies, serious conversations will need to happen in person and in private – meaning without electronic surveillance. Liars don’t want to be detected, truth-tellers don’t want the signs of lying removed, and both want all parties to speak freely – at least until contracts or treaties are signed. Face-to-face is back!

    Whether or not you believe lying is a necessary part of our society, it’s not going anywhere.

  • This is a mind-bending post; I love it.

    Transparency World is a little horrifying to imagine – it threatens one’s sense of identity. Those who applaud the death of lies seem to imagine that we can separate those nasty “lies” from the narratives we create as part of what it means to be conscious beings.

    To the extent that we’re all forced to participate in the same narrative through transparency technology, do we really have individual consciousness anymore?

  • Michael Wengler

    Have you listened to political discourse? The majority of Americans don’t CARE if what they are hearing is lies. The internet is already a superb technology for detecting repeated lies, and it just doesn’t matter. At best, new and better techs will move the quality of political honesty by epsilon.

    Similarly in interpersonal relationships. Some self-described “rationalists” will think it is a good deal. The rest of the mammals will keep going the way they’ve always gone, the way the REST of their brain says to go, and will get each other drunk and flatter each other and screw just as they always have, while “rationalists” use the new honesty techs to design better PUA technology.

    In the long run these techs will be great because they will allow for a broadening of the interaction between humans. We are not individually that much smarter than Chimps or Bonobos. But we can form a group mind whos effective size must be measured in the thousands or millions, where other primates probably top out in the teens. These new techs essentially allow the possibility of tighter coupling between the individual brains in the group mind, it is hard to imagine that not being useful in increasing the scale.

  • BABH

    The key word here is “civilization.” The supposedly transparent hunter-gatherer societies you describe were not civilized, they were extremely brutish and violent. Diplomacy and statecraft – the key arts of civilization – require deception.

    [This, incidentally, is why Wikileaks is a bad idea]

    • Doc Merlin

      You are incorrect. Countries are actually far, far less likely to lie to each other than they are to their own people. Wrt the wikileaks data, about a million people had access to it before it was leaked, so I don’t doubt that any foreign government that wanted access already had access though spies.

      • Doc Merlin

        Note: when I said a million, it was an order of magnitude memory approximation. I remember the number being 2 million when I last read it, but its been a while.

      • BABH

        Right. Lying to one’s own people is an important tool of statecraft. (And governments do plenty of lying to other governments too.)