BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
In Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s book Pinocchio, the eponymous puppet finds himself caught in an awkward predicament: trying to explain to the Blue Fairy how he got captured while simultaneously trying to absolve himself of guilt. As he lies (and lies and lies and lies), his nose grows longer and longer, and the Blue Fairy eventually delivers the preachy moral of the escapade: a lie is as plain as the nose on your face.
Or is it?
We lie to ourselves on a nigh-daily basis – we like to think that we’re smarter than we really are, or that we’re more attractive or charismatic than we seem. And yes, sometimes we lie to others – sometimes to spare their feelings, sometimes to escape responsibility, and sometimes just to avoid embarrassing ourselves in public. These might not even be conscious: our inherently biased means of information gathering and storage can lead to distorted narratives that make ourselves look blameless. Ricky Gervais’s seminal comedy The Invention of Lying postulates a world where everyone told the exact truth about everything, all the time – and it’d be an unbelievably awkward and uncomfortable place to navigate. So why exactly do we deign to dupe and deceive?
Biologist Robert Trivers suggests that our penchant for telling fibs, be they little white lies or mile-long whoppers, stems from a subconscious desire that stretches down to our genes: a desire to let other people gain a false or elevated impression of our own feats and deeds. In other words, he postulates, we’re drawn to deception because we all, no matter how subconsciously, want to claw our way up the social heap.
In a recent experiment, Trivers’ 306 online participants wrote a persuasive speech about a fictional individual named “Mark.” Some were asked to portray Mark in a positive light, while Trivers instructed others to depict Mark as an unlikable individual. To aid in speechwriting, participants received randomly selected videos of Mark’s exploits. Some received videos of Mark doing positive things such as returning a lost wallet or helping a friend. Others received videos of Mark jeering at women or punching his friends, and still others received a mix of both good and bad Mark videos.
When asked to present Mark as a good person, people who watched the videos of Mark being a Good Samaratin stopped watching as soon as they saw a clip of Mark doing a good deed. Conversely, people who wanted to depict Mark as a no-goodnik did the same as soon as they saw a video of Mark being an ass. Neither party used a complete picture to shape their biases; they selected and aggressively pushed evidence that conformed to their notions.
Now, in real life this process can take many different forms, and it’s not as clear-cut as the Mark experiment. But when you’re trying to push a sale, close a deal, or persuade your parents, you’re also trying to impose your perception of reality on them, a process that often involves some creative rejiggering of the objective truth. And how do we get the energy and self-motivation to pull off these feats? Trivers suggests that lying unconsciously to ourselves gives us the self-esteem and motivation required to be a go-getter.
A two-year study of 1000 Australian boys revealed that athletic overconfidence and deliberate mental distortion of their own skill and competence – what we might call the “Dunning-Kreuger effect” — begat greater popularity among their peer groups compared to the modest members of the bunch who remained honest about their capabilities. In some way, then, we seem to idolize, however perversely, those who can really lay down a plethora of whoppers without batting an eye.
So, whether you’re an ass named Mark or a wooden puppet named Pinocchio, one thing is sure: lying to yourself might have some surprising consequences.