The Oxford Dictionary recently named 'post-truth' as their word of the year. A reference back to Ralph Keyes' 2004 book The Post-Truth Era and a clear reflection of the current socio-political climate - where the ability to succeed by telling lies has become a part of our reality. But is deception a harmful or helpful ingredient in our lives?
The deception epidemic
Our capacity to deceive begins at a very early stage. As early as 6 months old, babies can be observed faking their cries, pausing to see who's coming, and then going back to crying. 1 year-olds quickly discover how to conceal their mistakes. 5 year-olds lie outright and learn how to manipulate via flattery. By the time young adults enter college, on average they lie to their parents in 25% of their interactions. In our working lives - we are bombarded by lies: spam, fake virtual friends, identity theives, and world-class fraudsters, all demanding that we believe their version of the truth.
A 2002 study found that 60% of people can't go more than 10 minutes without lying. And it's more bad news if you meet lots of strangers - studies have shown that strangers lied on average 3 times within the first 10 minutes of meeting each other.
But all is not lost - as professional lie-detector Pamela Meyer puts it -
"A lie has no power whatsoever by its mere utterance; its power emerges when someone else agrees to believe the lie."
Lying, therefore, is a co-operative act. Sometimes we are willing participants in this act, for all kinds of reasons, such as the maintainence of social dignity ("I just found your email in my junk folder"). In situations like this, don't we want to be lied to?
A buggy moral code
History is littered with examples of large corporations engendering a culture of cheating. When the 2001 Enron scandal was eventually unpicked , it was discovered that employees at all levels were happy to lie, fabricate and deceive - suspending their understanding of reality, and buy-in to a new reality, in which their actions were completely justifiable.
Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University, has studied our capacity to cheat, seeking to understand what factors influence our (buggy) moral code.
Economic theory would assume that cheating is a simple cost/benefit equation: what is the reward vs the probaility that I will get caught vs the severity of punishment? But, this isn't what happens in test conditions:
A few big cheaters are trumped by a lot of little cheaters, then. So what influences us to cheat (a little), if not just a pure risk analysis?
Dan Ariely tested this by getting a group of participants to sign the MIT 'honour code' before being given the opportunity to cheat. Introducing this element of moral accountability made a difference - the group who signed the code were less-likely to cheat when tempted than groups who didn't. Impressively (there is no such thing as an honour code at MIT), the mere suggestion of it was enough to allow participants to remind themselves that they were upstanding members of the community.
Prof Ariely's research has shown that we each have a personal 'fudge factor' - a force that allows us to justify cheating (a little bit), as long as it doesn't challenge our self-image.
Here's a test for you - what's worse - stealing some printer paper from the office, or stealing the equivalent in money? Your personal fudge factor will come into play when justifying your answer.
Is the Internet keeping us honest?
Does our ability to constantly stream tweets/posts/blogs make us more or less likely to deceive? Thanks to the virtual world, we can openly lie to people about who we are, where we are, and what we're doing. Yet, contrary to popular belief, the Internet might be keeping us honest!
Cornell Psychology Professor Jeff Hancock asked his students to keep a communications diary for a week, noting how many conversations they had lasting more than 10 minutes, and confessing to how many lies they told. His surprising finding was that people are twice as likely to tell lies in a phone conversation compared to email. Why? Emails automatically provide recipients (one or many) with a record of any lies - much more difficult to justify/rationalise than a phone call. Furthermore, Hancock found that people are more likely to lie in real time - in an instant message or phone call - as lies are often spontaneous responses to an unexpected demand.
Technology now provides many other tools to detect deception. One of the most-visited sites during the 2016 US presidential election was Factcheck.org, whose mission it is to reduce the level of deception/confusion in politics by monitoring the factual accuracy of politicians' ads, debates, speeches and news releases. And that's just one site. Imagine the power of a Google algorithm 20 years from now, and the extent to which it will be able to track patterns in our deception. It will be interesting to see how and if we can adapt to this.
Lying for survival - optimism vs scepticism
What about the lies that are not directed at others, but the ones we tell ourselves?
Self-deception can be evolutionarily advantageous. Telling ourselves that a suspicious rustle in the grass might be a dangerous animal (as opposed to the wind), serves to protect us from potential danger. After all, if it's just the wind, we have nothing to worry about...but if it is a dangerous animal and we optimistically tell ourselves it's the wind - that's a different story!
Equally, entrepreneurs will regularly deceive themselves about how likely they are to be successful. The fact is that most start-up businesses will fail within the first few years, and the huge optimsim bias found in entrepreneurs is an important psychological resource for them to draw on to keep going through the tough times. Without it - it's doubtful anyone would ever bother starting a business.
Whether we are entrepreneurs or intrepid explorers, the trick here is to strike a balance between a healthy amount of optimism (more on that here), with a generous pench of scepticism. Easier said than done.
And that's the honest truth...