Tag Archives: Lies

Philosophy Between The Lines

Seven years ago I raved about a Journal of Politics article by Arthur Melzer that persuaded me that ancient thinkers often wrote “esoterically,” e.g., praising their local religions and rulers on the surface, while expressing their true atheism, rebellion, etc. between the lines. Melzer has just come out with a very well written and persuasive book Philosophy Between The Lines, that greatly elaborates this thesis.

Melzer’s book emphasizes the puzzle that while ancient thinkers were quite open about esotericism, modern thinkers have mostly forgotten it ever existed, and are typically indignantly dismissive when the idea is suggested. Below the fold I give an extended quote on a fascinating transition period in the late 1700s when European intellectuals openly debated how esoteric to be.

While Melzer’s last chapter is on implications of esotericism, he really only talks about how it can somewhat undercut cultural relativism, if we can see intellectuals from different times and places as actually agreeing more on God, politics, etc. Yet he doesn’t mention the most obvious implication, at least to an economist: since esotericism raises the price of reading the ancients, we will likely want to buy less of this product, and pay less attention to what the ancients said. Melzer also doesn’t mention the implications that the rise of direct speech might be in important enabler of the industrial revolution, or that seeing more past esotericism should lead us to expect to find more of it around us today, even if we now officially disapprove of it.

Melzer says that the main point of his book is just to convince us that esotericism actually happened, not that it was good or bad, nor any particular claim about what any particular ancient really meant. But this stance is undermined by the fact that the main bulk of the book focuses on elaborating four good reasons why the ancients might have been esoteric. In contrast, when Melzer talks about why we moderns dislike esotericism, and why esotericism is the usual practice around the world today in non-Western cultures, he mentions many illicit reasons why writers might be esoteric. For example, Melzer quotes An Anthropology of Indirect Communication giving these reasons for such talk:

To avoid giving offence, or, on the contrary, to give offence but with relative impunity; to mitigate embarrassment and save face; to entertain through the manipulation of disguise; for aesthetic pleasure; to maintain harmonious and social relations; to establish relative social status; to exclude from a discourse those not familiar with the conventions of its usage and thereby to strengthen the solidarity of those who are.

But when Melzer talks about why the famous long-revered ancient thinkers might have been esoteric, he gives only reasons that such ancients would have seen as noble: protecting thinkers from society, protecting society from thinkers, teaching students, and promoting social reform.

Now whether the ancients were esoteric for good or bad reasons isn’t very relevant to the empirical claim that they were in fact esoteric, which Melzer says is his main focus. So then why does Melzer focus on if the ancients were esoteric for good reasons? One possible answer is that Melzer actually wants us to like and respect esotericism, not just believe that it existed. Another possible answer is that Melzer sees his readers as biased to see ancient thinkers as good people. If many folks have invested so much in identifying with famous ancient thinkers that they will not accept a claim about those ancients that suggests they were bad people, then to convince such folks of his claim Melzer needs to show that that his claim is quite compatible with those ancients being good people.

Either way, however, Melzer does quite successfully show that the ancients were often and openly esoteric. That promised quote on late 1700s European intellectuals:

Continue reading "Philosophy Between The Lines" »

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How To Influence People

I posted before on the how-to-win-friends part of Dale Carnegie’s classic How To Win Friends And Influence People. Today I’ll discuss influencing. Carnegie offers twelve principles, the first three of which are:

  1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
  3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

He illustrates principle 1 with a story:

During the dinner, … the [storyteller] mentioned that the quotation was from the Bible. He was wrong. I knew that, I knew it positively. … I appointed myself as an unsolicited and unwelcome committee of one to correct him. He stuck to his guns. … Frank Gammond, an old friend of mine, … had devoted years to the study of Shakespeare, So the storyteller and I agreed to submit the question to Mr. Gammond. Mr. Gammond listened, kicked me under the table, and then said: “Dale, you are wrong. The gentleman is right. It is from the Bible.” On our way home that night, I said to Mr. Gammond: “Frank, you knew that quotation was from Shakespeare,” “Yes, of course. … But we were guests at a festive occasion, my dear Dale. Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to make him like you? Why not let him save his face? He didn’t ask for your opinion. He didn’t want it. Why argue with him?” … I not only had made the storyteller uncomfortable, but had put my friend in an embarrassing situation. How much better it would have been had I not become argumentative.

Carnegie also tells of how Ben Franklin learned a similar lesson:

“I made it a rule,” said Franklin, “to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiment of others, and all positive assertion of my own.”

This is a hard lesson for me. Humans have many conversation ideals, and usually act as if they uphold such ideals. For example, you aren’t supposed to lie. And if you talk about something as if you think it important, and someone else knows a good clear reason that something important about what you said is wrong, they are supposed to tell you, and you are supposed to listen, and then change your mind. So we commonly talk as if we assume people who said something must believe it, as if people who heard a claim and didn’t object must not have known a good clear reason it was wrong, and as if people who don’t publicly change their minds when others object must not think the reason offered was good and clear.

But we are actually hypocritical about such ideals – we try to avoid visibly violating them, yet are not otherwise eager to follow them against our interests. We often object to unimportant claims by rivals, to gain status at their expense. We often pretend we don’t think reasons offered by others are good, to avoid visibly changing our mind. We often lie. And those of us who are best at arguing and lying are the most eager to uphold conversation ideals, as we can best evade detection of our ideal violations.

So how committed should we be to such ideals? How should we think of Carnegie and Franklin’s violations, refusing to tell others they are wrong, and even lying on occasion to avoid conflict? Given that they will try to admit when they are wrong, I find it hard to find much fault overall in them. Yes, their refusing to disagree on something important could fail to inform others, but I doubt they took this habit to such extremes. I expect that in such situations they disagreed indirectly, but still got their key info across.

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Why Allow Lies?

Jonathan Turley wants to keep lies legal:

Alvarez … is a liar. … After his election to a water board in California, he introduced himself at a public meeting as “a retired Marine of 25 years,” a repeatedly wounded warrior and a Medal of Honor recipient. … He was found out, publicly ridiculed and hounded out of office. … [He is] one of the first people prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, … [which] makes it a crime to falsely claim “to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States.” …

The problem with the law they may have broken is not just that it is unnecessary, but that it can be dangerous to criminalize lies. After all, with the power to punish a lie comes the power to define the truth — a risky occupation for any government. … Now the [Alvarez] case will go to the Supreme Court, where the Obama administration will argue that the First Amendment does not protect lies as it does true statements. …

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski balked at the notion that lies can be crimes in a society saturated by untruths. “Saints,” he noted, “may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying.” Kozinski is supported by a host of studies on the human propensity, even necessity, to lie. … The dividing line in the law has always been fraud or related crimes — using lies to gain money or benefits. … But the Stolen Valor Act was designed to address cases in which the individual is not deriving financial gain or other benefits; rather, the law punishes the boast or the brag itself. …

If it is harmful to lie about soldiers, what about lying about being a former police officer or a former firefighter? How about lying about politicians or religion or terrorism? Once we criminalize lies, someone must determine what is a lie and what is harmless embellishment. … The First Amendment protects … the right of everyone to speak, even when they may be called liars. As for our heroes, they are no more diminished by pathetic pretenders than top singers are diminished by bad karoke. We know the real thing when we see it. (more)

Turley’s arguments are surprisingly weak. We needn’t let government set the truth on all topics to outlaw very clear cases of lying. Lies being common in social talk doesn’t require us to legalize all lies. We surely do not all instantly “know they real thing when we see it.” Even if the harm from lies isn’t monetary, it is clearly real harm. And we already outlaw non-monetary lies to the government.

This seems to me more about feeling that a line has been crossed, such as with a sense of appropriate social spheres. In sex and friendship, we seem to prefer that those who are not socially savvy or well-connected suffer from lies by those who are more clever and connected, at least relative to letting law get involved. It is mainly when we see dominance, via money, business, or government, that we want to outlaw lies.

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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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Do Liars Care More?

One of the biggest lies we tell is not having favorite kids:

It’s one of the worst-kept secrets of family life that all parents have a preferred son or daughter, and the rules for acknowledging it are the same everywhere: The favored kids recognize their status and keep quiet about it. … The unfavored kids howl about it like wounded cats. And on pain of death, the parents deny it all. …

384 sibling pairs … [were] questioned … and videotaped … as they worked through conflicts. Overall, … 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child, usually the older one. … “The most likely candidate for the mother’s favorite was the firstborn son, and for the father, it was the last-born daughter. ” …

Firstborns have a 3-point IQ advantage over later siblings. … Kids who felt less loved than other siblings were more likely to develop anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. (more)

Interestingly, lying here is seen by many to signal caring:

Not all experts agree on just what the impact of favoritism is, but as a rule, their advice to parents is simple: If you absolutely must have a favorite (and you must), keep it to yourself. Even if your kids see through the ruse, the mere act of trying to maintain it can help them preserve the emotional pretext too — a bit of denial that does little harm. What’s more, the effort it takes to tell a benign lie is in its own way an act of love toward the unfavored child.

Its not clear though how often disfavored kids see self-serving denials as showing care. Do parents who care more about disfavored kids actually lie more than others?

Also, we less resent favoritism to lower status siblings:

Even the most blatant favoritism is easier to take when there’s a defensible reason for it. Perhaps the most extreme example is when one child in the home has special needs. Children with Down syndrome or autism … Kids with physical disabilities … require more time and attention from parents … Talking about the situation openly is the best and most direct way to limit resentment. … “Research suggests that differential treatment may have no negative effects when children understand why.”

Oh kids understand favoritism toward smarter, prettier, stronger siblings – they just hate it more.

I suspect that many commonly told lies are accepted and even encouraged because they are seen by many as showing that liars care. Cynics who tell the truth are, in contrast, described as cold and hostile. A problem, of course, is that we often believe our lies, leading to mistaken inferences and decisions. Which may be why humans often seem so oblivious to “obvious” implications of their “beliefs.”

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We Ban Lies, To Officials

When I posted before on not seeing why lies should be legal, many complained that laws against lies are impractical. But in fact, it has long been illegal to lie to government officials:

Did you know that it is a crime to tell a lie to the federal government? Even if your lie is oral and not under oath? Even if you have received no warnings of any kind? Even if you are not trying to cheat the government out of money? Even if the government is not actually misled by your falsehood? Well it is.

Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001 makes it a crime to: 1) knowingly and willfully; 2) make any materially false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or representation; 3) in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative or judicial branch of the United States. Your lie does not even have to be made directly to an employee of the national government as long as it is “within the jurisdiction” of the ever expanding federal bureaucracy. Though the falsehood must be “material” this requirement is met if the statement has the “natural tendency to influence or [is] capable of influencing, the decision of the decisionmaking body to which it is addressed.” United States v. Gaudin , 515 U.S. 506, 510 (1995). (In other words, it is not necessary to show that your particular lie ever really influenced anyone.) Although you must know that your statement is false at the time you make it in order to be guilty of this crime, you do not have to know that lying to the government is a crime or even that the matter you are lying about is “within the jurisdiction” of a government agency. United States v. Yermian , 468 U.S. 63, 69 (1984). …

Some [Assistant United States Attorneys] specifically send agents out to conduct interviews knowing that a witness will either tell the truth and help build a case against someone else or lie and subject himself to a Section 1001 charge . … You will probably not be shown any of the pertinent documents before the interview begins. You could easily make factual mistakes during your interview. … Your mistakes can easily be interpreted as intentional falsehoods under Section 1001. …

Tell the agent that you have an attorney and that “my attorney will be in contact with you.” … If you are not in custody, your total silence, especially in the face of an accusation, can very possibly be used against you as an adoptive admission under the Federal Rules of Evidence. Your invocation of counsel, however, cannot be used against you at trial. (more)

This law may or may not be a good idea, but surely it is feasible.

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Words Show Lies

We humans communicate a great deal via our facial expressions and body language. While I usually assume that most such behavior is adaptive – evolved in detail to achieve important ends, some argue that much of this in unwanted leakage – that such expressions reveal stuff about ourselves often against our interests. Studies of liars, however, suggest that there is much less unwanted leakage than most people think:

Contrary to popular belief, liars don’t readily give themselves away with their facial expressions or body language and most of us are easily duped by a determined liar. … When [researchers] pulled together the findings of more than 100 studies looking for cues to deception, they found none that consistently stood out. … “There are no behaviours that always occur when people are lying and never occur when they are telling the truth,” … The idea that liars leak information about their true emotional state through so-called “micro-expressions” is not very helpful either. … “What makes the expert [lie detector] an expert isn’t the ability to watch non-verbal behaviour,” he says, “it’s the ability to ask the right question.” (more)

So why are we more overconfident in our ability to read non-verbal than verbal clues? Is it more important for us to believe in our covert homo hypocritus skills than our overt talking and thinking skills? Some ways that help to detect liars: Continue reading "Words Show Lies" »

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Subtext Beats Text

We typically pay more attention to subtext than to text. For example, when we hear someone answer a question, we usually won’t notice if they actually answer a somewhat different question than the one that was asked. Oh we can tell the difference, if we pay attention, but we are usually too busy considering social subtext:

What happens when speakers try to “dodge” a question they would rather not answer by answering a different question? In 4 studies, we show that listeners can fail to detect dodges when speakers answer similar—but objectively incorrect—questions (the “artful dodge”), a detection failure that goes hand-in-hand with a failure to rate dodgers more negatively. We propose that dodges go undetected because listeners’ attention is not usually directed toward a goal of dodge detection (i.e., Is this person answering the question?) but rather toward a goal of social evaluation (i.e., Do I like this person?). Listeners were not blind to all dodge attempts, however. Dodge detection increased when listeners’ attention was diverted from social goals [or if listeners were given no goal] toward determining the relevance of the speaker’s answers, when speakers answered a question egregiously dissimilar to the one asked, and when listeners’ attention. … When listeners were guided to detect dodges, they rated speakers more negatively, and listeners rated speakers who answered a similar question in a fluent manner more positively than speakers who answered the actual question but disfluently. (more)

This raises the question: why is modest question-evasion so often tolerated in TV and radio interviews? Three possibilities:

  1. Interviewers are usually too stupid to notice modest evasions.
  2. Interviewees would refuse to appear on shows that highlighted evasions.
  3. Viewers would avoid shows where interviewee evasions were highlighted.

I lean toward #3 — viewers may watch such shows to affiliate with high status interviewees, but such affiliations seem weaker if interviewee evasions are challenged. Reporters seem plenty smart and attentive enough to notice the evasions, and interviewees seem eager enough to be interviewed. Viewers are the picky party.

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Blame Victims For Lies

Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

Since gullible people tend to believe what they are told, other folks are more tempted to lie to them. So if one chooses to be gullible, one must accept a lot of responsibility for the lies one hears. Case in point: voters are greatly responsible for the lies their leaders tell them. A Post book review:

The leaders most likely to lie are precisely those in Western democracies, those whose traditions of democracy perversely push them to mislead the very public that elected them. In fact … leaders tend to lie to their own citizens more often than they lie to each other. In his disheartening yet fascinating book, “Why Leaders Lie,” Mearsheimer offers a treatise on the biggest of big fat lies, breaking down the deceptions the world’s presidents and generals and strongmen engage in — when, why and how they lie, and how effective those falsehoods can be.

First are “inter-state lies,” deceptions aimed at other countries to gain or retain some advantage over them. … Such state-to-state lies are relatively uncommon … and successful ones are even less so. In a world where each state must fend for itself, leaders are unlikely to take each other’s word on serious stuff. … Also, if you lie too often, no one will trust you, so what’s the point?… “Fearmongering” — when leaders cannot convince the public of the threats they foresee and so deceive the people “for their own good” — is far more prevalent and effective. …

Next is the “strategic cover-up,” in which a leader misleads in order to cover up a policy that has gone badly wrong, or to hide a smart but potentially controversial strategy. … National myths fuel solidarity by putting a country’s history in the best possible light. … Liberal lies … are used to justify odious behavior that conflicts with traditional ideals. For example, Winston Churchill and FDR served up a generous helping of deceit when depicting Stalin as a good guy (friendly ol’ “Uncle Joe”) to justify their cooperation with the Soviet leader during World War II. …

Depending on the situation, lies can be “clever, necessary, and maybe even virtuous.” … [But] widespread lying makes it harder for citizens to make good choices in the voting booth. …. And in fragile democracies, pervasive lying can so alienate the public that they are willing to embrace more authoritarian leadership.

Because voters tend to be gullible, politicians lie more to them. Much of that gullibility seems to me to be by choice; people seem to see themselves as good people if they give their leaders the benefit of the doubt.  Then they express righteous indignation if they discover that their leaders lied. But really, they are themselves mostly to blame.

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Remorseless Power

Making people feel powerful makes them good at lying:

Dana Carney divided research subjects into two groups: bosses and employees. Bosses got larger offices and more power; they were asked, for instance, to assign employees’ salaries. Half of all subjects were instructed by a computer to steal a $100 bill. If they could convince an interviewer they hadn’t taken it, they could keep it. The other subjects were questioned as well. In the interviews, lying bosses displayed fewer involuntary signs of dishonesty and stress. … We measured subjects on five variables that indicate lying—involuntary shoulder shrugs, accelerated speech, the level of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva, cognitive impairment, and emotional distress. Only the low-power liars could be “seen” as lying; the readings for the liars with power were essentially the same as those for truth tellers on all five variables. (more)

I’d always heard that the reason humans can’t lie well is because our minds are leaky, sending signals about our anxiety every which way.  But this result suggests not; it suggests we are quite capable of lying well, but are designed to not always use that full capacity.  So now I’ll guess the same thing holds for blushing; we often reveal feelings we think we want to hide via blushing, but are quite capable of not doing so if we feel powerful enough.

I’ve been posting lots lately on ways we seem to give the powerful a pass, not holding them to the same high standards we hold others, perhaps for deference or fear of retribution.  So now I’ll guess that we blush and leak lies out of a fear of a larger punishment if we are caught; for the non-powerful, the punishment for a norm violation when we give out such clues that we feel guilty about our violation is far less than if we don’t give out such clues.  The powerful apparently needn’t fear such extra punishment for remorseless lies, though they do fear being caught lying.  Why?

Perhaps for our homo hypocritus ancestors, the implicit elites in a band were better able to read such clues, either via better raw abilities or because power frees one to use such abilities (perhaps by reducing fear of retribution).  So by lying but giving off subtle clues about your lies you might have been saying to the elites, “I’m only lying to these other fools, not to you.”  When elites caught non-elites in well-hidden remorseless lies, they made sure to punish them much more severely.

FYI, one can also make folks feel powerful just by making their body take up more space:

You know how peacocks spread their feathers? What they’re doing is taking up more space, an assertion of power that’s common in animals. Cobras rear; birds spread their wings. Humans do it, too. Think of the CEO with his feet up on the desk, leaning back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head with elbows out … We found that people in power poses show higher testosterone levels and lower cortisol levels. They feel more powerful and less stressed out, just because they take up more space. When prompted, they take more risks than people in subordinate poses. (more)

Added 3p: The details that give away lies are much less reliably communicated to distant others.  You could get folks to clearly testify that someone had said certain words, but this would be much harder to do regarding how much speech was sped-up, or how unusual were any shoulder shrugs.  So to enforce an added punishment based on the presence of these added clues, one needs enough discretion to be able to act on one’s own judgement, rather than on what one can prove to outsiders.  Perhaps powerful folks can better prevent those they hurt with such lies from acting with such local discretion.

Added 7p: Perhaps this is like my suggestion that we “Choke to Submit“; perhaps lying with relaxed confidence is seen as a bid for high status, which if discovered will be squashed vigorously on those who can’t support such status.

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