Archive for the ‘Lies’ Category

Service of Lies

Monday, May 17th, 2010

People lie for obvious reasons. Americans are funny about the penchant. Criminals are often punished by press, public and juries not so much because of what they did wrong, but because they lied about taking drugs, keeping a mistress while married, stealing funds, insider trading or whatever. Scuttlebutt has it that former Governor Spitzer will be OK because he admitted to his wrongdoing.

Within a week, The Wall Street Journal twice covered the subject head-on, which may have been coincidence, or may be an oblique way to nibble at the hanky panky going on not only on Wall Street but everywhere, while explaining the causes.

I’m not talking about the kind of story such as “Ex-Senator Could Face Longer Term in Fraud Case,” in Friday’s New York Times although it illustrates my first point. Benjamin Weiser reported “Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are seeking a significantly longer prison sentence for former State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, Jr., claiming that he lied when he told a judge he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea because he was innocent of the charges.”

I am referring to “Survival of the Fibbest: Why We Lie So Well,” by Shirley S. Wang and Eric Felten’s De Gustibus column, “6,300 Dupes Want to Know: Why’d You Lie?

Wang covers the development of lying from childhood to adulthood. I got the impression from some points made that smarter people lie-“Since telling a lie involves multiple brain processes, the more developed frontal regions of adolescent and adult brains help them keep up their bluffing.” Now lying is considered bluffing? And anyway, I’ve known world-class liars who are intelligent but who eventually forget their lies and lose all credibility with me and goodness knows how developed the frontal regions of my brain are.

Wang proffers a good excuse: “Many adults don’t even notice when they lie because they do it so often for altruistic purposes and may stop making a distinction between that and other motives.” That’s a good one. Because I don’t tell one friend who has gone through hell that she looks as she fears or I do tell another friend that her dinner was tasty when it resembled sawdust, does that give me a pass to lie to my family, clients and friends because I don’t know the difference between the white and black kind?

In the second Journal article, Eric Felten wrote about researchers Modupe Akinola of Columbia University and Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania who duped over 6,000 professors into responding to a question for a study by pretending to be a guidance-seeking graduate student. Their excuse was that they would have tainted the results of their study–to learn if professors give up more of their time if asked to help a student immediately or in the future–had they said who they were. Some respondents were livid, but Felten notes that “The American Psychological Association ethics code specifically allows ‘deceptive techniques’ in research where ‘effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible.'”

Felten also wrote that the author of “Illusions of Reality: A History of Deception in Social Psychology,” James H. Korn, “found that before 1945, fewer than one in ten studies used deception. By the 1970s, half of such research relied on trickery.”

Is deception/spin lying? Waiting for the New York State legislature to pass a budget, Governor Patterson suggested a one-day-a-week furlough for 100,000 state workers to save $200+ million. Meanwhile, to replace several people in his press office, Patterson promoted five from inside and gave them raises totaling $40,000. The representatives for the disgruntled state workers ran to the media and headlines screamed that the Governor was giving raises to his staff while causing others to lose their incomes. The facts: One staff member’s salary catapulted from $35,000 to $40,000. Those who left the press office were making $150,000. To keep the focus on the budget, the Governor told the staff he would take away their raises so as to keep everyone focused on the budget crisis. Then the reps accused him of not knowing what he was doing, of flip-flopping.

When the police dupe a suspect into confessing by claiming to know for sure that such and such happened or saying that an alleged collaborator in an adjacent room has already spilled the beans about the caper– when neither is true–are these OK lies?

While I don’t cotton to lying, hate being lied to, and have a clear inner compass that steers me away from doing so, there may be extraordinary times when lying is OK, but the liars, in these instances, must be scrupulously honest experts who know the rules and have good reasons for breaking them.

Do you think deception is lying? Do you think that there are exceptions when lying is acceptable?

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