Why Lie? Why Not?

Three NPR science reporters stepped out of the radio studio and onto the stage at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, Thursday for an evening of story-telling about the lies, big and small, we tell ourselves and others.

In "A Fishtale: The Lies that Bind Us," Jon Hamilton, Alix Spiegel, and Shankar Vedantam used the story of two Milwaukee boys who, in 1982, came home from fishing carrying two giant salmon—and a very fishy story about how they got them. Hamilton dissected what we know about the brain's ability to lie, while Spiegel focused on the person-to-person aspects and Vedantam on how lying works at the level of larger groups and society. In addition, we got to hear from the family members and a half-dozen researchers via audio and video clips.

Deception is a valuable self-preservation mechanism, and it's no surprise that our brains are really good at it, Hamilton said. "People who deceive themselves into believing they can do the impossible can do great things," for example, which might help explain why it's often the case that the smarter you are, the more you lie to yourself.

He also described how researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to dampen brain activity in a specific spot in the medial prefrontal cortex just as test subjects were asked about themselves. The answers were "a lot more honest"; some people acknowledged that they weren't handsome or clever. When they reported their mood, though, more subjects reported low mood or depressive thoughts when the TMS was on than when it was off.

Interpersonal benefits are easier to see: The parents were amazed and excited by the boys' fish story, to the point where they called all the relatives and invited them over for a feast when the fish were ready to eat. Recalling the story thirty years later, Zak and Jesse Mazur said they didn't have an explanation for why they lied. "It just felt like the right thing to do," one said. Just as with many people who tell bigger lies, they didn't see themselves as "liars," but as good people. And they grew to start believing their own tale.

Why didn't their parents call them on the lie? Their story had obvious holes—starting with the fact that the boys didn't really know how to fish. "We want to cement our relationships," said Alix Spiegel, "and to make ourselves feel good." Even when the boys told their parents, much later, that the story was a fib (in fact, they were given the fish), nobody called all the relatives to correct the information. We are often complicit in the lies people tell us, but not because we intend it, more because it fits into our cognitive biases or our wish to be part of the group. Conscious deception exists, of course, but this kind of blind deception, where you don't realize or recognize that you're making an ethical choice, "is way more common," said Spiegel.

Or, as Shankar Vedantam put it, "You don't want to let the facts get in the way of the bond" you're forming with a person or a group, so you believe what your friend is telling you. "The person being deceived is a participant in the deception." But then your friend, who may or may not know he's stretching the truth in the first telling, also starts to believe his own lies. Lies can strengthen in the telling. Vedantam suggested this could be how the hundreds and thousands of people in one company, like Enron, could participate in unethical behavior; most didn't see it as unethical but perfectly fine because everyone else in the company thought it was perfectly fine, too.

In addition, "facts probably don't matter as much as people believe," Vedantam said. Telling people facts that go against their beliefs can backfire—they "double down," or dig in their heels even more strongly, especially if it goes against a group or social norm. One reason may be that they feel threatened; Vendantam described a study where researchers strived to put people at ease ("stroking them"), and then giving them a troubling fact. In that case, the listeners seemed more accepting of the fact, more willing to consider it.

"The brain isn't that interested in reality," Hamilton said, "the brain is about self-preservation," creating its own reality through beliefs and by filtering the information it collects and remembers.

Or, as Speigel put it to the audience, "You are all living in a fog of deception and self-deception." 

While the storytelling and, especially, the slide-animations were informative and fun, for me, the best part was the half-hour of Q&A afterward. The questions showed people were trying to accept and grapple with facts that didn't match their current realities. One wondered: Our society looks at telling the truth as a good thing—how do we resolve that with our brains' fog of deception?

Just because something makes sense as a social norm (telling the truth) doesn't mean it's good for a single individual, Hamilton suggested. Just as it's advantageous for individuals to tell the truth in certain cases, it's advantageous to lie in others, he said, but we can use our big brains to talk ourselves out of it for the benefit of the group. We may not always reach our goals, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for them.

One parent said she'd brought her kids to the event, and now that they knew self-deception was ubiquitous and often unnoticed, she worried that when she told them in the future, "tell the truth," they would just shrug. "How do I spin this to my kids?" she asked, perhaps not noticing the irony inherent in her question.

Not all lying is bad, Hamilton reminded us. "Children automatically have a world of their creation," and imagination can be a powerful good. Perhaps parents could reframe the issue by making the distinction between lies that harm people and those that do not. Vedantam added an appeal to their social needs: "Tell them 'if you grow up lying to people, you're not going to have any friends.'"

–Nicky Penttila

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