Been lied to lately? Our natural tendencies to deceive are deeply embedded throughout our social experiences. Most of our lies are not geared toward outright deception (that’s a different topic) but toward subtly exaggerating truths and opinions in our own favor. For those of us seeking more truth in our relationships, we are confronted with the near impossibility of measuring the honesty we offer others or desire from them. Our portrayal of self to others is a constantly moving target. No sooner do we post a status update to friends, than we are tasked with somehow hiding those words from friends of friends. Not only self images, but even our internal sense of grounded opinions can shift dramatically as we move from one environment to the next. We listen empathically to partners as they expose their prejudices but then go on to deride those same prejudices when with others. Where is our true self hiding among this maze of images and opinions we project on the world? And how do we move past our masks of persuasion to cultivate a sense of trust: with our partners, friends, family, and with ourselves?
An Experiment in Truth Telling
Right now, while writing these words, I am conscious of my own intent in writing about this subject; I want to normalize lying as a social convention and explore the ramifications. This intent appears innocent and open ended to me. I recognize a desire to honestly provide you, the reader, with some unbiased information—the kind that you can expect to use as a point of reference should you engage with others in a conversation about lying or to reflect on your own dishonest tendencies. Do you believe I will be honest here? Why would I try and deceive you? Perhaps because, like you, it is my nature to deceive.
Pamela Meyer makes this plain in the studies revealed in her book, Liespotting. According to Meyer, strangers lie three times within the first 10 minutes of meeting. But then again, married couples lie to each other once in every 10 interactions. Her book details the ways in which we are unconsciously detecting one another’s lies in order to negotiate our social life. By including a reference to Meyer’s published study, I am seeking to manipulate your view about my confidence in my opinion: that lying is normal. If my general opinion was that lying is wrong and a social disease, I could easily have used the same findings from her book. The validity of Meyer’s studies have little to do with my intent to normalize our deceptiveness. I have already chosen my opinion, and now I am working to influence others to think likewise. Facts, statistics, primary sources, and research findings are but neutral bystanders in my struggle to influence (yes, deceive) my readers.
In the realm of human interactions, the subtle art of persuasion competes regularly with the more strict art of information dissemination. Reading the intentions of others is as important as reading the rules before starting a game. So long as we are in agreement with the rules of the game, truth telling and lying can both be observed as successful modes of interaction. Two of the primary drives propelling you and your friends toward lying (or truth telling, when convenient) are for status and confidence. Becoming familiar with these drives is helpful if you wish to be able to move them aside when building relationships of trust.
As social animals, we all seek to be found popular. Although extroverts make the biggest show of it and demand the greatest attention, even we introverts find pleasure in the act of being well regarded by others. Being popular is important to us for the most primitive reasons; ensuring access to food and water in times of drought, deeming us worthy of high-value mates, and generally improving the likelihood of our personal survival. Those with the highest status were simply those who’s singular value connected most with the demands of the shared habitat. A good climber would fare well in a forested community. The loud speaker would be most noticed in noisy villages. Context is everything. In our modern, strangely interconnected realm (Internet 2.0) into which most of us are now venturing forth, the rules of obtaining status have become increasingly removed from our actual value as individuals. Instead we tend to create imagined values for ourselves to meet the imagined demands of a decontextualized, highly fluid habitat.
The choice of pursuing online popularity comes with some precarious side effects. At some point, the pleasure of belonging to new social media circles can lead to hazardous habits of narcissism, hubris, and self-sabotage. Photoshopping our profile pictures, posting exaggerated updates, tagging unsuspecting friends in group photos, commenting sarcastically on the thread of others sarcastic commentaries, blogging insincerely and anonymously to an invisible audience; we submit these seemingly minor gestures out to the void and wonder at the result. It’s an uncertain environment, where our status is measured not so much by our actual value as by the confidence we place in our self-image and opinions.
Our brains are geared toward making meaning from our sense impressions. Thus, biologically speaking, we are natural opinion-making machines. In social groups, this function contributes wonderfully toward building meaningful relationships. Language has been used to reinforce clan contracts already formed by our shared experiences; storytelling around the fire, whispers on the hunt, cooing among the caregivers. Adapted to the virtual habitat in which we now spend much of our lives, we use opinions to establish new sorts of clan networks. We bookmark sites that expand on what we and our clan members already agree is beautiful, good, or true. We comment on one another’s blogs. We may interact with other clan members that disagree with our opinions in order to sharpen our arguments, test the mettle of our beliefs, but only for so long. Generally we make our virtual home within the comfortable confines of our own clans, identified by whatever brand of opinions we have selected.
What do we share as context to test these opinions? Viral YouTube videos, satirical mash ups of pundit talking points, headlines shared from whatever news site has received the most hits. Divorced from any physical shared experiences, language itself becomes the medium for clan partnership. The cash in this economy becomes the force of our instant reactions, the strength of our convictions, the confidence in the value of our assumed online status. In place of honest uncertainty about issues we know nothing about, our brains coalesce around the selective information that will boost our confidence as opinion-making machines.
Relationships of Trust
Recognizing our online preoccupations can give us clues to how we experience relationships in general. Did you check your Facebook account this morning? If so, how many of your reactions to what you found there (delight, disappointment, envy, reassurance) were a result of the game you are playing with yourself around issues of status and confidence? For most of us, it is a game of shaky gains and frequent losses, fleeting joys, and general impermanence.
Our instinctive tendencies to grasp for status and confidence lead us toward many levels of deception— even to ourselves. Those who have come to feel impoverished by a string of failed attempts may come to a point of despair. “I am in pain. If it is my preoccupations with my self-image and opinions that have brought this pain, perhaps I should be seeking something else.”
Turning to a more honest assessment of one’s status is almost always humbling. Gratitude for those few we have the opportunity to genuinely care about is a great antidote to a failed search for status. Whereas the quest for confidence is often a matter of holding tight to one’s beliefs, building relationships of trust requires a more open-handed approach. Whether with partners, family, friends, or with oneself, there comes a willingness to stay with the uncertainty of one’s present surroundings. If there is actual value to be found in a relationship, it may arise naturally—not by virtue of our contrived opinions but by simple observance of what is. Becoming open-handed observers of the information around us and of our relationships makes us better lie spotters. We can end lying games where most of them start: in our own behaviors.
Gentle Tips for Waking Up From the Restless Sleep of Status and Confidence
- Stay conscious when the urge to inflate your status or confidence shows up. Recognize it as a game you can opt out of at any time.
- Close your laptop, leave your smart phone at home, and take a slow walk around your neighborhood. Practice observing your surroundings without forming opinions about it or announcing to the world that you are “now taking a walk.” Play with your ability to let the present moment be just what it is.
- Engage in relationship activities that have actual context to them. Play a game. See a movie. Share a meal. Once again, practice observing your shared experiences and try to disengage from focusing on your opinions about them.
- Make better friends with the state of uncertainty. Staying curious, without jumping to a quick (usually shortsighted) conclusion about a topic, can be accomplished with dignity. Retain the childlike freedom of open-ended inquiry and awe, even while proceeding with decisions based on the information before you.
- For more on Pamela Meyer’s work on lie spotting, see her short video:
- Marche, S. (2012 May).Is Facebook making us lonely? The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/8930/
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