Thursday, August 27, 2009

We Are A Culture Of Liars

Believe me when I tell you I am writing a column about a review by Jessica Bennett of Newsweek about psychologist Robert Feldman, the author of a new book, The Liar in Your Life, the inspiration for a new film, The Invention of Lying, as well as a Fox TV series Lie To Me.

We are a nation of liars, Feldman is quoted. Writes Bennett:

Time and time again, public-opinion polls show that honesty is among the top five characteristics we want in a leader, friend, or lover; the world is full of woeful stories about the tragic consequences of betrayal. At the same time, deception is all around us. We are lied to by government officials and public figures to a disturbing degree; many of our social relationships are based on little white lies we tell each other. We deceive our children, only to be deceived by them in return. And the average person, says psychologist Robert Feldman, the author of a new book on lying, tells at least three lies in the first 10 minutes of a conversation. "There's always been a lot of lying," says Feldman, whose book came out this month. "But I do think we're seeing a kind of cultural shift where we're lying more, it's easier to lie, and in some ways it's almost more acceptable."

This path of fabrications starts at the top. Among the great whoppers of our time is President Clinton claiming he never had sex with that woman. The cigarette manufacturing executives telling Congress they were unaware nicotine was addictive. Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina telling aids he was walking the Appalachian Trail when he jetted to Argentina for a liaison with his Latina lover. The list is endless (which I don't think is a lie).

Actually, it is a cultural trickle-down epidemic, writes Bennett:

We are a culture of liars, to put it bluntly, with deceit so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we hardly even notice we're engaging in it. Spam e-mail, deceptive advertising, the everyday pleasantries we don't really mean—"It's so great to meet you!" "I love that dress"—have, as Feldman puts it, become "an omnipresent white noise we've learned to tune out."

And Feldman also argues that cheating is more common today than ever. The Josephson Institute, a nonprofit focused on youth ethics, concluded in a 2008 survey of nearly 30,000 high school students that "cheating in school continues to be rampant, and it's getting worse." In that survey, 64 percent of students said they'd cheated on a test during the past year, up from 60 percent in 2006. Another recent survey, by Junior Achievement, revealed that more than a third of teens believe lying, cheating, or plagiarizing can be necessary to succeed, while a brand-new study, commissioned by the publishers of Feldman's book, shows that 18- to 34-year-olds—those of us fully reared in this lying culture—deceive more frequently than the general population.

When I was a child we learned by the second grade that George Washington never lied and confessed to his parents he chopped down the cherry tree. He was rewarded for his honesty. That parable and those we read in "the good book" were suppose to be the foundations of our lives.

I was a good disciple. I told a visiting aunt she had graying hair. Oops. How quickly one learns to become more discreet. By the time I married, I would cringe when my wife asked if her fanny was too big for the pair of slacks she was modeling. I tried humor, asking if that was a trick question. And, so, those little white lies grow.

Of course, the mean streak in me defaults to truth mode. Clerks who cheerfully bid "Have a nice day" are rebutted by "Easy for you to say." Old folks who can only talk about the weather proclaim what a beautiful day it is are rejoined by "too damned hot." I take great delight turning inane greetings literally.

Says Bennett:

Liars get what they want. They avoid punishment, and they win others' affection. Liars make themselves sound smart and savvy, they attain power over those of us who believe them, and they often use their lies to rise up in the professional world. Many liars have fun doing it. And many more take pride in getting away with it.

As Feldman notes, there is an evolutionary basis for deception: in the wild, animals use deception to "play dead" when threatened. But in the modern world, the motives of our lying are more selfish. Research has linked socially successful people to those who are good liars. Students who succeed academically get picked for the best colleges, despite the fact that, as one recent Duke University study found, as many as 90 percent of high-schoolers admit to cheating. Even lying adolescents are more popular among their peers.

How can you tell someone is lying? By studying facial expressions, the split-second eyebrow arch that shows surprise when a spouse asks who was on the phone; the furrowed nose that gives away a hint of disgust when a person says "I love you." Once you learn that, the experts say, try to prove it.

I cannot sit here and tell you I have never lied. Usually they unthinkingly jump right out of my mouth in a reflex of self-preservation, usually to disguise embarrassment.

Back in the second grade, my parents told me not to take the bus home after school because neither would be home until early evening. I was to walk to the principal's home and stay until they came to pick me up. I forgot and took the school bus. Risking embarrassment, I decided to depart the bus at our stop, walked to the ranch superintendent's home and asked him to drive me to the principal's house which was near a home he often visited.

I lied to the principal that when he went looking for me I must have been in the restroom. I lied to my parents why it took me so long to reach the principal's home.

"You took the bus, didn't you?" my mother who knew everything asked.

"No," I mumbled.

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