On a given day, studies show that you may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times. Now granted, many of those are white lies. But in another study, it showed that strangers lied three times within the first 10 minutes of meeting each other. (Laughter) Now when we first hear this data, we recoil. We can’t believe how prevalent lying is. We’re essentially against lying. But if you look more closely, the plot actually thickens. We lie more to strangers than we lie to coworkers. Extroverts lie more than introverts. Men lie eight times more about themselves than they do other people. Women lie more to protect other people. If you’re an average married couple, you’re going to lie to your spouse in one out of every 10 interactions. Now you may think that’s bad. It you’re unmarried, that number drops to three.
This data is a from the transcript of a Ted lecture by Pamela Meyer, author of a famous book – Liespotting. What interests me more than her work on the spotting of lies & liars is the origin and nature of lying itself. She captures that in the first part of her lecture.
It’s starts really, really early. How early? Well babies will fake a cry, pause, wait to see who’s coming and then go right back to crying. One-year-olds learn concealment. (Laughter) Two-year-olds bluff. Five-year-olds lie outright. They manipulate via flattery. Nine-year-olds, masters of the cover up. By the time you enter college, you’re going to lie to your mom in one out of every five interactions. By the time we enter this work world and we’re breadwinners, we enter a world that is just cluttered with spam, fake digital friends, partisan media, ingenious identity thieves, world-class Ponzi schemers, a deception epidemic — in short, what one author calls a post-truth society. It’s been very confusing for a long time now.
Like emotional and intellectual biases, lying too has evolutionary roots. Why we lie in the modern day world, can probably explain its origin and growth in our species. Dr. Dan Ariely (Yes, I’m becoming a devotee of his writings, I agree), has done some research and written a book on the reasons behind our dishonesty. There are various selfish motives for external lying. The author starts with an example of people buying fake Prada bags, in order to portray a false signal of superiority. Similarly, we lie to ‘get things done’, which is somewhat obvious from our own experiences.
The more interesting part is the whys and hows of self-deception (lying to ourselves). Now, if I go by Dr. Ariely’s theory, in lying to ourselves, we somehow deceive ourselves into believing things that aren’t factually accurate. We do it to create a better self-image, that adds to our confidence and enables us to perform all tasks (from drinking ales to mating with females). These signals are quite similar to how a peacock opens up his feathers to gain confidence in itself by portraying itself as better than other males and crabs wave their claws in the air and stand on hind legs to get a similar sense of self-confidence by external signaling.
There’s another benefit of self-deception. When the future is certain to be painful and sad, our self-deception (of the false hope of a better future) helps us to assuage the ill-effects of fear that would otherwise have made our life miserable. e.g. this is how people are able to withstand the news of a terminal illness, or to the upcoming loss of a loved one to the same, or even fight a battle knowing that the odds aren’t on ones favor. Living in a ‘fool’s paradise’ or ‘false-hope’ isn’t always foolish, especially when you know that the future is bleak & uncertain.
Nature gave us biases to program and obfuscate our rationality in specific ways for some known sets of scenarios & stimuli. And then it probably realized, that it had to give us a generic catch-all too. Because as an evolving species, not everything can be predicted and fit into existing patterns. We keep evolving new patterns in life, when nature (for it’s own sake) requires us to turn the rationality switch off. For those as-yet-unknown patterns, the ability to self-deceive acts like a silver-bullet.
So why do I talk about love in this post? Well honestly I wasn’t going to, but I saw this strange comment on love on someone’s Facebook timeline today, that added some interesting perspective to my thoughts and so I decided to change my post to accommodate that perspective. This was the comment that triggered it:
Unless its mad, passionate, extraordinary love, it’s a waste of your time. There are too many mediocre things in life. Love shouldn’t be one of them!
And here is where love comes into picture. Nothing illustrates this self deception better than the phenomena of love, especially romantic love or cupid’s love as I called it in my old & naive analysis. In her Ted lecture, Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has done extensive research on romantic love explains the effects of this self-deception beautifully:
George Bernard Shaw said it a little differently. He said, “Love consists of overestimating the differences between one woman and another.” And indeed, that’s what we do. (Laughter) And then you just focus on this person. You can list what you don’t like about them, but then you sweep that aside and focus on what you do. As Chaucer said, “Love is blind.”
…It’s a little bit like when you are madly in love with somebody and you walk into a parking lot — their car is different from every other car in the parking lot. Their wine glass at dinner is different from every other wine glass at the dinner party…
…not only does this person take on special meaning, you focus your attention on them. You aggrandize them. But you have intense energy. As one Polynesian said, he said, “I felt like jumping in the sky.” You’re up all night. You’re walking till dawn. You feel intense elation when things are going well; mood swings into horrible despair when things are going poorly. Real dependence on this person. As one businessman in New York said to me, he said, “Anything she liked, I liked.” Simple. Romantic love is very simple…
She goes on to explain love as a combination of 3 components that are progressively more focused – Sex drive, followed by romantic love and culminating in attachment, toleration, acceptance or ‘getting used to’ spending life with that person:
the sex drive evolved to get you out there, looking for a whole range of partners. You know, you can feel it when you’re just driving along in your car. It can be focused on nobody. I think romantic love evolved to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one individual at a time, thereby conserving mating time and energy. And I think that attachment, the third brain system, evolved to enable you to tolerate this human being — (Laughter) — at least long enough to raise a child together as a team.
So isn’t love by nature dependent on the most potent and dangerous form of lying i.e. Self-Deception? Would you ever be able to aggrandize a human to the stature of God, be willing to kill and to die for that person and find them own every waking and sleeping thought of yours – all without the support of some powerful lie that had somehow been magically sold to your intellect? Or a lie that empowers your emotional self to an extent that it can completely shutdown your rationality – thereby screwing up your ability to compare, analyze and evaluate with any level of objectivity. Hence, coming back to the Facebook comment, are we by expecting our love to be “mad, passionate” & “extraordinary”, not hoping and craving for that lie to be as potent and powerful as it can be? Alternatively, and perhaps more interestingly, Gita says that the world as we see it internally, and its existence externally, are both an illusion (Maya). Thus nature itself tends to cheat us and lie to us. In that case, instead of being lied to by a thousand different material entities every waking and sleeping moment, is it instead wiser to just let yourself flow in a singular blissful lie? Note that you’d still be dependent on the subject as discussed in my earlier post on subject-less love, yet the point here being that it is perhaps better to be completely enslaved by one subject, instead of being partially enslaved by a thousand all-powerful ones.
My analysis of lying cannot be complete without mentioning my favorite lines on lying from a famous ghazal by Mirza Ghalib. (Here’s a rendition of the same.) The context behind these lines is equally relevant – Ghalib was in love with a courtesan who had politely refused his proposal for reasons she did not reveal, but promised to reciprocate sometime in the future. To which he later wrote:
yih nah thii hamaarii qismat, kih visaal-e-yaar hotaa
agar aur jeetay rehatey, yahii intizaar hotaa
//it wasn’t in my fate, to have a meeting with my beloved
//had i continued to live, I’d have endured the same long wait
terey vaade par jiye ham, to yih jaan jhouth jaanaa
kih khvushii se mar nah jaatey, agar aaitibaar hotaa
//and if you think I lived thus far on your promise, then know this lie – O love of my life
//would I not have died of elation, had I believed Your promise to be true