The Biggest Lie?

The message of the movie The Invention of Lying, according to the NYT:

A world without lying is also one without art. … Lying becomes a means to transcendence, an escape from the quotidian, from our oppressive literal-mindedness, from our brute selves. … The truth doesn’t just hurt — sometimes it’s also degrading, and not just for the characters. The movie encourages our inner bully, coaxing it out for giggles.

Notice: a movie dedicated to the idea that lies are better than truth induced little outrage or opposition!  Reviewers’ main complaint was just that it didn’t stay funny long enough.  Can anyone make a similarly compelling movie dedicated to the opposite claim, that truth is better than lies?  If not, doesn’t that count as evidence that most people do in fact accept that lies are better?

The movie is set in an alternate Earth where people not only never lie, they go out of their way to tell truths others want to know, even when that makes the speaker look bad.  This is far from a stable social equilibrium – most any weak tendency to more often repeat successful behavior would quickly lead away from this.  But let’s set that issue aside to consider the movie’s message.

In this world people are selfish, shallow, cynical, base, and rude. They explicitly think in terms of evolutionary motives; men want sex with pretty women, while women want money and hansome good-gene sex partners, etc.  People act on these beliefs, which makes them dull, unhappy, and emotionally flat:

The undressed, undeceptive, utterly honest world is no Eden: flat lighting, earth tones, beige bachelor flops, blank-walled offices, bland daytime barrooms.

A man notices that he can gain by lying, first to avoid being evicted.  Then he tries to lie to bed a pretty woman, but finds he just doesn’t want this.  Apparently lying induces altruism, as he spends his time telling lies to make various random strangers like themselves better and be more entertained.  He also lies to get cash and fame, but that is apparently all right in pursuit of a woman – the main thing he likes about her is that she is “out of his league” pretty.  But he refuses to lie to her about why she should like him.

He invents God and heaven, lies big and bright enough to make the whole world honestly happy.  A headline reads: “Finally a reason to be good.”  The man finally convinces the woman to focus less on his looks; “he’s smart funny kind loving, makes me feel special, makes me happy.”  She learns to lie to please, and see the best in people.

So the movie’s thesis is that to be happy, we must self-deceive and embrace incorrect but inspiring far-view ideals, such love, friendship, altruism, laughter, art, and fiction.  This thesis affirms a core ideal we seem desperate to believe: that common far ideals have little practical function.  For example, we want to think that our loves of fiction or laughter are “true” loves, and do little to achieve base and personal purposes.

In fact of course our far ideals evolved to serve concrete, practical, and largely personal functions.  A world without lies would still contain art, laughter, fiction, etc. – we’d just be more honest about the functions they serve.  But that is a truth we dare not tell; we’d actually rather believe that most of our other cherished ideals are lies.

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  • A society that truly evolved amidst the inability to lie would probably be a very reticent one, as survival or advantage in many situations would be negatively affected by revealing every notion that pops into one’s stream of consciousness. Invention of Lying takes it a step further in showing a world without impulse control, where these people not only can’t lie, but can’t shut up about the truth. Obviously we have to suspend our disbelief, but its hard at times to believe a cooperative society could ever develop under these circumstances. Not lying about factual truths (“the sky is blue”) might be doable, but having to reveal every emotion (“I’ve always hated you”) is another.

  • Small correction: it’s strongly implied that the female lead doesn’t learn to lie. There’s a point in the story where she tells the Ricky Gervais character she thinks he has a great personality, but doesn’t want to marry him because he’s ugly. The climax of the story comes when she has to make an honest decision about what’s more important to her.

  • Reviewers’ main complaint was just that it didn’t stay funny long enough. Can anyone make a similarly compelling movie dedicated to the opposite claim, that truth is better than lies?

    Depends on how you rate Jim Carrey’s “Liar, Liar”

  • Unnamed

    I took the message to be that cynical truths (like evolutionary mating motives) can be self-fulfilling if you focus on them too heavily, and they are only partial truths. There are alternative perspectives which also capture some truth, which lead to more interesting & fulfilling lives, and which can be fostered by some lies. The man was transformed by his ability to lie, but then he transformed the woman into a better, more interesting person without lying to her or teaching her to lie – she just learned to appreciate his different perspective.

  • anon

    Invention of Lying takes it a step further in showing a world without impulse control, where these people not only can’t lie, but can’t shut up about the truth.

    Perhaps this is simply a signalling equilibrium. In a world where people are literally incapable of lying, everything one says would be trustworthy, but people who remain silent about something important would be distrusted as much as habitual liars are in our world. Telling socially inconvenient truths may be a honest signal that you’re less likely to remain silent about things other want to know.

    Um.. scratch that. I was… er, saying the thing which is not. Except we like to call it “speculating”.

  • Tim Tyler
  • Another similar idea from Terry Pratchett’s “Hogfather”:

    Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
    Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers?
    Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
    Susan: So we can believe the big ones?
    Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.
    Susan: They’re not the same at all.
    Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged.
    Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what’s the point?
    Death: You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?

  • In what sense can we say that love is “incorrect”?

  • tom

    1. Why would lack of lying require a lack of fiction? You could make up stories as long as you didn’t say they were true. It seems like they’re really talking about “The Invention of Imagination.”

    2. Justin Ross mentions Liar, Liar. The difference is that Liar, Liar had one small trick–one guy could not lie for one day because of his son’s wish. But human nature was normal. Invention of Lying has to create a human race that seem robotic (no offense to our soon-to-come robot overlords, who will learn to lie pretty early on), and then premise the story on the idea that this society has somehow created a society just like ours.

  • I thought their inability to produce fiction made the world a bit more plausible – it avoids one slippery slope.

    The shortage of art is puzzling – I’d expect lots of artistic portrayals of nature, and lots of porn.

    I’d expect people to be less rude, because people would be rewarded for not having rude thoughts. If the movie followed its logic that far, it would be more plausible for the hero to have a habit of being too nice to want to lie to the woman he’s pursuing.

    Also, it seems obvious that the crime rate would be much lower than in our world. I wish the movie had been clear about that.

  • Robin writes: “A world without lies would still contain art, laughter, fiction, etc. – we’d just be more honest about the functions they serve.”

    Certainly this world would also favor people who are naturally gifted but not good at lying/seeing through lies. High functioning autistics might be better off. But how do you convince people who benefit from lying who stand to lose out from a more honest, transparent world/ If pretty much all of us are good at lying, does this confer some good benefits–maybe people are nice to a broader group of people because they’re not exactly sure what people’s status is, whereas if everything were transparent, one could be a beast to one’s inferiors and a suck up to one’s superiors.

    Also, wouldn’t a world of perfect transparency favor people who were good chess player types, who can work well with perfect information, and hurt people who are better at acting under uncertainty–and so the most powerful maybe would be the chess players who could calculate the moves in a world of transparent people, and not the people who are good at gaining power in an uncertain world with lots of guesswork about other people and their motives, which seems potentially a better sort to have in power because the world seems more about guess work than about chess game calculations, at least in the political realm. I guess this is basically a Nassim-Taleb-esque point, not to say NT would endorse it.

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  • As a Gervais fan, I’m a bit saddened that he didn’t make a film worthy of the interpretation it is receiving here (or at the New York Times. It seems obvious that most of the choices in The Invention of Lying were made to conjure up mostly cheap laughs and don’t really require much in the way of analysis.

    Use it as a talking point, sure, but I couldn’t bring myself to say the movie is infused with enough thought to possess a meaningful thesis.

  • The other major problem with the premise of the film is that not only can no one lie, but people are hopelessly naive about anything that people tell them, implying that they also cannot conjure up the idea that people could be wrong about things. He goes into a bank and tells them that the computer has the wrong balance written down and the teller says that the computer must be wrong. Even if I knew someone could lie and they came in and told me that (if I were a teller) their bank balance is wrong I’d be inclined to believe that they just forgot some spending they had done.

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  • Sofa

    @Evil Man-moth: I know, it is sad that Rickys film even gets slammed here.

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  • Patri Friedman

    Heh, I also watched this movie through the lens of signaling, self-image, and the nature of humanity, and found that it made an otherwise so-so movie much more interesting. The idea that the guy turns down the first cute random sex partner that he has the opportunity to seduce was a ludicrously hilarious picture of male human nature.

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