Can you handle the truth II: does everybody lie and does it matter?

In recent weeks on clubtroppo and elsewhere, there’s been a lot of attention given to untruthful journalism, media bias, and lying politicians. The situation appears the same internationally, with Blair and Bush being criticised for lying about Iraq and media bias being more generally in the public’s focus. The outcry of pundits is always the same: why dont we get honest politicians and truthful journos. This blog tries to bring a social science perspective to this issue since social science has known for a long time that lies play a central role in a smooth interaction between many people. This blog is first about repeating some standard observations of social science on being truthful and then to see whether there is any hope for getting truthful media and politicians in the future.

Firstly, the general public gets exposed quite regularly to the opinion that they all lie. One of the leitmotifs of the television character Dr. House (played by Hugh Laurie) in the same-named series about a brilliant cranky medic curing odd patients is that ‘everybody lies’. In the series, people lie about their drug habits, their sexual habits, their status, their life history and other such matters. They lie either to make themselves look better than they are or in order to spare the feelings of someone they love. In many an episode, we get either Dr House or his arch-enemy saying that everybody lies.

Funnily enough, economists implicitly also believe (nearly) everybody lies, but unlike Dr House economists don’t say it out loud all the time. Let me give some examples. Economists are as a profession absolutely convinced material incentives matter and that, for instance, welfare claimants and early retirees are in many cases on welfare and on early retirement out of monetary motives. Perhaps not the majority, but certainly a sizeable minority. Yet welfare claimants and early retirees themselves don’t tell you this. I have looked myself (with bob G) at the responses of a 1000 Australians who entered the Disability Support Pension in 2004. Not one of them said they went onto DSP because it paid better than the alternatives, or that there was nothing really wrong with them but they had had enough of the world of unemployment or work. Not one. One invariably got the usual suspects: stress, back pain, heart conditions, being advised by others to go onto DSP, etc. The same is true for talking to people face to face: I’m yet to meet a welfare claimant either here or in the Netherlands that tells you their motivations for being on welfare are monetary. Does this mean the core belief of economists is wrong or does it mean that a sizeable fraction of respondents are being ‘economical with the truth’, perhaps even to themselves? The same goes for a wide range of instances where personal incentives clash with social norms. I’m willing to offer a bounty of 50 dollars for the first person to find me a lone mother who says they divorced their previous husband in order to enjoy the generous welfare system; or the first doctor to admit they prescribe a particular drug because they get sweeteners from the manufacturers; or the first white person who self-describes to be an Aboriginal in order to get a welfare payout; or a real estate agent who admits they’ll put more effort into selling their own house than yours.

The same kind of issue can be repeated for managers and businesses. Which firm do you know that advertises by saying they exist to make money off you? I don’t know a single one, yet my economic training tells me nearly all of them are of that creed. Firms almost invariably tell you however that your best interest is their concern. Hell, they even give courses to their own staff where they talk about customer satisfaction and their community duty. The economist in you should register a lie whenever you see or hear something like this.
Advertising more generally is of course a thankful area of untruths. You only have to walk into a shopping mall to see lies coming at you from every side. ‘Bargains you wont believe!’ I do believe those bargains, and in fact the price is often higher than last week when the same goods were not on sale. ‘Fantastic offers’; ‘Amazing clearances’. ‘50% off’. Really? It either doesn’t take much to amaze nowadays or these are lies. And economists, by their central assumption that material motivations matter to nearly all actors, implicitly view such advertising, managerial mission statements, and welfare self-perceptions as falsehoods. I wont go into the untruths that go into news reporting again here, though I will note the furious pretence of some contributors to that thread that things ain’t as bad as I sketched then.

What goes for economics as a profession, also goes for specific subfields of psychology. Take for instance the often quoted study by Dr. Bella DePaulo, described in Allison Kornet, ‘The Truth about Lying’, Psychology Today, Vol. 30 Issue 3 (May/June 1997), p. 53. Let me give you some selected passages:
”Working with her department colleagues, University Psychology Prof. Bella M. Depaulo asked 77 undergraduate students and 70 community members to record all the social exchanges and conversations in which they took part. She asked the participants to record the number of lies they told in the course of one week.
In Depaulo’s studies published in 1996 and 1998, college students lied in 38 percent of their interactions, while community members lied 30 percent of the time. In addition, 70 percent of the people who lied said they would lie again given the same circumstances.”
”Participants were also asked to keep track of their own reactions to their lies and to record the extent to which they felt guilty. The results revealed that all participants lied. Their lies were self-serving and were employed either to enhance the liar’s status or protect him from embarrassment, disapproval or conflict. Only one out of four lies was told to protect someone else’s feelings. Her studies revealed that socially skillful people told way more lies than people who were socially unskilled.”
For more, see here.

Note that these were the blatant lies of which people were aware. They don’t even include the type of lies that we talked about above, i.e. involving people’s livelihoods. Hence, professional psychologists in this field, the economic profession as a whole, and Dr House all come to the same conclusion: (nearly) everybody lies, and in fact, the more socially adept and therefore socially successful, the more often the lies (managers?).

You may say ‘so what? Big deal! Yes, everybody lies and pretends they are motivated by something else than that they claim. Yes, they pretend to be more certain about things than they could possibly be. But we all implicitly know this and discount everything we hear for the possibility that it aint true’. I have often heard and read this excuse but have never been convinced of it. Lies create smokescreens that make it harder to identify what’s going on and to get people to agree on the best course of action. Let me give two examples heavily discussed on this very site recently.
Take merit pay for teachers. Andrew Leigh was beaten up for his promotion in the Sydney Morning Herald of merit pay schemes by the teaching unions and others who more often than not were appalled by the idea that incentives would improve behaviour. On his website, Andrew succinctly tells of how he was heckled by a television audience for suggesting that material incentives matter in the teaching profession. The notion that incentives don’t matter is the number 1 lie economists seem to spend their lives fighting. Yet those same unions and television audience appear to want pay increases across the board. If incentives really don’t matter, why not cut the pay of all teachers and use it to improve other aspects of schools? I know there’s much more to the debate than sketched here, but I hope you see the point that the communal lie that incentives don’t matter makes it very hard to have a reasoned open debate on merit pay. Its apparently an embarrassment in polite conversation to suggest that the people sitting opposite you would behave differently when you reshape the material incentives. That they would try harder than they do now if their pay depended on it. That sensitivity, encapsulated in the communal pretence that we’re all nice people who only care about each other and not about our bank balance, is in the way of solutions.
Another example is the recent debate on early childhood interventions, training, and all the other quick fixes to having 20% of the population more or less permanently on state support. No-one in that thread disagreed with the statement that a big problem in that debate was the falsehood on both extreme sides of politics that there was an easy fix, which absconded the proponents from the responsibility to make tough choices. This was also the theme of the nice ‘kill the poor’ post by Don Arthur.
Merit pay and the welfare debate are just two of many examples I can give where face-saving lies are in the way of rational debate, open discussion, and sensible policy. They create a fog of deceit and half-truths that not every punter can see through. Let me for instance predict to you right here that as a result of the belief in quick fixes, we will see many forms of early childhood interventions tried in this country. I also predict that none of those experiments will be properly evaluated via a randomised trial with proper scientific scrutiny and input: the possibility that someone may be proven to have made the wrong choice will prevent proper evaluations from happening. The potential loss of face will outweigh the need to know the truth, meaning deliberate fog will be created on this issue. The fog deliberately created and maintained to derail sensible debate about indigenous matters in this country is even worse (see here). Hence it matters.

What does this propensity to lie all the time about anything that makes us look less good and certain than we are mean for policy scientists and policy makers? If we cannot find a way to talk about sensitive issues to the general public without being drawn into a world of face-saving lies and make-believe certainties, then we’ll have to have the real discussions indoors. The huff and puff of open debate would go on unhindered by the constraints of consistency, ambiguous evidence, and a human nature that’s different from an idealised version of human nature. Behind closed doors an elite would try to shape sensible policies and would then try to manipulate the open discussion their way, using whatever lies are needed to persuade the public. And in a sense, a country is lucky if it has such a well-meaning elite that’s prepared to lie to its population. That situation is more or less how I perceive these things go in every Western country I know. Nicholas Gruen’s historical description of how economic policy in Australia since the 50s was shaped indoors by a determined small elite that managed to get its way whilst an ignorant public was kept out of it fits this mould perfectly. His recent comment on the Noel Pearson thread that ‘a successful political campaign whomever it begins with, will take on a broad church of supporters and will have to convey its message in the cliche’s that are demanded or invented by the media’ also fits this. This thought is also part of the Climate Change discussion, for instance wittnessed by the following illuminating confession by a US science journalist in the context of an article pointing out that Gore was using bogus science: ”The culture of Washington, D.C. is: ‘Don’t do anything unless there is a crisis.’ And that’s been the problem with global warming for all these years Al Gore has reallized that if you want to get attention, you really have to focus on the crisis.”
Richard Harris, NPR Science Correspondent

Can it be done differently? Probably not. Yes, its depressing to think that we need to deceive the general public and that an academic in public hence has to pretend an adherence to whatever the popular belief of the day is. And I’m not sure that in the modern age, where scientific journals are available to the public and are no longer the domain of a small self-appointed intellectual elite, we can sustain a dichotomy between indoor truths and outdoor lies. Perhaps I am entirely wrong about this though and its the other way around. Perhaps in a more complicated economy, there’s more scope for a benevolent elite having the real discussions behind closed doors rather than less. The lies just become more sophisticated. Remember those satellite pictures designed to convince you of weapons of mass destruction? Or the Nigeria nuclear weapons hoax? Perhaps you should not see these as evil machinations but as the necessary tools of a benevolent elite to get you to agree with what they have deemed is good for you. If I reflect on Nicholasâ pleas for better journalism I’m hopeful there are those who think it can be done better, but the replies generally make me think open discussion simply has to live in a make-believe world where the best you can do as a benevolent elite is to manipulate the fairy tale factory.

Let me in conclusion put the issue as starkly as possible: do you really think you and the general population could handle the truth?

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10 Responses to Can you handle the truth II: does everybody lie and does it matter?

  1. Niall says:

    Indeed, everyone does lie. Granted, about diversely different things or aspects of their lives, but everyone lies. There is no societal pre-requisite for membership which decrees that one tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, nor is there any major penalty for not doing so, so no-body does. Think back over your past day/week/month/year and declare me incorrect. No-one can.

    Is this chronic lying by society at large dangerous to the individual or deleterious to society in general? I don’t believe so, providing the individual is aware that it happens constantly, and is able to detect it. Such behaviour can tend to make us all cynical, but my view is that cynicism is way out in front of blind trust and gullibility.

  2. paul frijters says:

    Niall,
    are you willing to have a stab at answering the obvious next question as to why do we then ask the impossible of journos and politicians?

  3. Niall says:

    Ahhhh, but you see Paul, I don’t ask the supposed obvious next question because I know they’re all habitual liars, just like you and me and the rest of society. What’s that olde saw…….we get the governments we deserve?

  4. cam says:

    Paul, do you really think you and the general population could handle the truth?

    You are arguing against self-interest? Aristotle’s idea of the philosopher king was that someone who could understand eternal truths would be a better ruler since they would not be swayed by the selfish manner that despots ruled with. It still wouldn’t stop the plebs and prols acting in their self-interest anyway.

    We had a project a few years back where we were trying to integrate technicians that were all over the continent into a digital system. In many areas it acted against their self-interest as employees and just wasn’t used. The areas of that technology that helped them get their job done were used massively. Their responsiveness improved because of it, and it wasn’t due to the project requirements that were dreamed up in the central location.

    The technicians were also motivated to get their work done faster and more efficiently; it is in their self-interest especially when they are on call. So that project only worked as much as it matched the self-interests of both parties despite there being a definite authority hierarchy.

    It may be argued that the ‘truth’ from the central location was, “We need a way to collect billable hours faster so we can display/bill them to the customer.” The technicians self-interest was “get the job done so I can go home and don’t have to come back to this remote location.” Where there was a union between those – it worked fantastically.

    Where there were rules, regulations and technical limitations (software business rules) to force the flow in what the centralised location wanted then it was ignored. Unrestricted technologies, such as email and voice, were used to coordinate amongst the technicians instead.

    I guess I am saying when you get self-interest to match desired outcomes, good things happen. It doesn’t need to be wrapped in ‘truth’. Andrew’s mistake at that pilot was probably assuming that the teacher’s self-interest lay in getting more salary year to year and bonuses. Maybe if he said, “You get fast retirement points so you can retire at 40 instead of 55” the teachers in the audience might have said, “We are all ears”.

  5. paul frijters says:

    Cam,
    I’m not arguing against self-interest at all and found myself agreeing with everything you say. I was noting that in public, we nearly all pretend not to be swayed by self-interest and that politicians and journos simply have to go along with that lie if they want to remain a force. Yet we have all these bloggers who continually ask of journos and politicians that they should be honest. Are the latter dumb and naive or are they implicitly asking the politicians to become more convincing liars so that we wouldnt feel the pinch of knowing when they lie?

  6. Vee says:

    Of course everyone lies because everything is about politics. I don’t mean politics as in trying to run the country but as stated to protect loved ones and so on. Politics is about manipulating people to get your own way hence the lies.

    On the teacher example, they start on what is basically the median annual income compared to other occupations – is that really fair? And then they get raises for every so many years – is that fair? So there may be merit in merit pay. That said, they have to put up with a lot of crap from kids so maybe it is fair they get paid what they’re paid regardless.

    On can the world handle the truth? Imagine for a moment intelligent aliens from another planet did exist. Do you think the world could handle that? Of course not.

    Now the journalists (not op-ed columnists) are just trying to trip politicians up, everyone knows they lie and tell half truths then deny it that’s why politics has so much cynicism and the only real reason any sensible person would go into politics is to get a safe seat, be a backbencher and collect the income they don’t deserve all for financial gain and other perks whilst following a party line and appearing to work for the electorate. It is the only pragmatic reason to do so. Some will still join for ideals but once in they’ll discover it doesn’t quite work the way they thought it did.

    The whole thing can be summed up as “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

  7. cam says:

    Paul, Yet we have all these bloggers who continually ask of journos and politicians that they should be honest.

    Yeh. If the journalists aren’t honest though they don’t have me as a customer. The only news feed I have in my reader is the McClatchley lot, and they got their through merit.

    Same with politicians. Though I dont *consume* them, but in a democracy there are other means of taking your ‘political’ business elsewhere. I think by the amounts of power and importance in governance that it is necessary for good governance that a politician is moral, and that includes honesty.

    Too often bad governance comes from dishonest dealings, and electoral expediency will be traded for the political use of government. So there is a haste and impatience from voters and constituents that there be honest and transparent government (even if it isn’t in the ruling parties self-interest) as the alternative is bad governance or the loss of liberal democracy.

    I have empathy with politicians being held to a higher standard.

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  9. Thinking in old ways says:

    Paul
    Not everyone lies about the financial benefits of welfare. In HILDA a whole 0.5% of part time workers declared that the main reason they worked part-time rather than full time was Welfare payments or pension may be affected by working full-time! An equal percentage of people not looking for work gave the impact on payments as being their main reason.

    OK it is not many but it is a start.

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