Writer: Steph Vermeulen
Neuroscientists confirm that Shakespeare was right: all the world is a stage, and it appears that we’re all hard-wired to play make believe.
A popular social media post reads; ‘I wish your life was as dazzling as it appears on Facebook’. It neatly captures the ‘inconvenient truth’ revealed in Ian Leslie’s book Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit that we are born liars who couldn’t survive or thrive without the intricate maze of fibs we fashion to make sense of our existence.
Most people will admit to despising lies and liars but ask those same people what they or their children are up to and brace yourself for the intricate web of illusions to follow. Apparently, we subject people we know to tales a little taller than reality at least once or twice a day but, when introduced to a stranger, even an ‘honest Joe’ is likely to tell at least three lies within the first ten minutes.
We know that paying someone a compliment or tactfully holding back on the whole truth helps lubricate our interactions but where do we draw the line between buttering someone up and full-blown self-delusion? According to Leslie, little white lies turn into darker shades of deceit from the moment we open our eyes.
Scientists have shown that the bigger the brain the better the liar so we may be more adept at algebra than our bush-baby ‘cousins’ but we are also sneakier and a lot more deceitful. In brain terms, size may count but not in favour of the truth. Instead of sharpening thinking skills, additional brain capacity in humans is routinely used to ‘serve up stories’.
From about age three or four, we engage in creative self-deception to support the fiction that we know why we do the things we do. Philosophers, such as Arthur Schopenhauer, suggest we view our conscious mind as a virtuoso novelist who drafts and redrafts the story in which we feature as the main character.
Dispensing an even colder dose of reality, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus observed that humans are creatures who spend their whole lives trying not to admit that their existence is absurd. A litany of lies that puts a positive spin on the absurdity may be the most potent means of sugar-coating this bitter pill.
Positive illusions allow us to constantly view ourselves in a good light and this includes being unrealistically optimistic about how we will fare in future. Rose-tinted perceptions also make us believe we can make things happen even when all evidence points to the contrary. This could explain the popularity of delusional movies like The Secret and the high prevalence of consumer debt incurred to manifest fantasy lifestyles.
We also overestimate ourselves by under-estimating others and – when talking to someone – two things are prominent in our mind; our thoughts and the other person’s face. We judge others by what we see and ourselves by what we feel and the model ends up something like this: I’m subtle, complex and never quite what I seem; you are predictable and easy to read.
The politics of honesty
According to Leslie, the problem is not just that over-confidence seems to be built into normal human psychology; it’s that politicians and military leaders are likely to be particularly talented self-deceivers. Leslie points out that honesty is not a trait but a state so, instead of demanding more honest politics, we need to create conditions that steer politicians towards honesty. It may be an unsettling reality but this requires being more honest about ourselves.
Most of us like to think of ourselves as more virtuous and honest than we actually are, simply because our need to keep in touch with reality conflicts with our need to make up stories and to believe them. Without the former, Leslie says we couldn’t get on for long with our environment or each other. Without the latter, we wouldn’t have the imaginative reach that has driven all human progress.
The sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out that the line between stage acting and real life is alarmingly fine and it’s pertinent that the English word ‘person’ derives from the Latin term meaning ‘mask’.
So, what’s your story? And how does it serve you?
Retraction: The writer of this article – Steph Vermeulen – is billed as a psychologist which is a fabrication.