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?