For the Truth About Lying, Look to Your Toddler
If your two-year-old child lies, Dr. Kang Lee of the University of Toronto has found, she or he is likely to be more successful in life—and, loosely speaking, the better she lies, the smarter she’s likely to be. This is big news in the lying literature, not only because toddler-age liars are smarter (though to me, that seems somehow obvious), but because for years psychologists had taken for granted that human beings simply couldn’t lie before the age of four, at the earliest.
“Did these people never reproduce?” one wants to ask–but many new truths about infants and children will doubtless be revealed as more and more scientists become more and more active parents, whether it is more women becoming scientists, or male scientists spending more time caring for the kids. Furthermore, on the subject of parenting, Dr. Victoria Talwar (of McGill University) has shown that children learn how to lie not from television, or peers, or older kids, or other bad influences, but—you guessed it—from their parents. So it’s good that our kids lie, and they are modeling us when they do it—and yet there is hardly a parent out there who doesn’t discourage her or his child from lying. (“Better not tell a lie. Santa Claus might be watching…”)
A friend of mine at the University of Arizona who is an expert on lying, Don Fallis, reminded me that Holden Caulfield described himself as “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” And all of the residents of Salinger’s world seem much less worried about the truth—at least, the truth as cold, hard fact—than they are about a different quality that usually relates, we think, to truthfulness: namely, sincerity. Holden Caulfield and the Glasses are nothing if not sincere. (They are as sincere as glass—if not always as transparent.) One thing that drove Holden crazy and that the Glass kids also despised–and we suppose Salinger must have hated as well–was what Holden called “being a phony,” or what we more often refer to as hypocrisy. The ancient vice of the whited sepulcher. The one who actually dares to pretend he is without sin and throws the first stone. The people in glass houses who think theirs are made of brick. We all live in glass houses, but some of us are more willing to admit it than others; the Glasses wear it as a name, perhaps because they see better than we do.
It is hypocrisy that makes us furious at politicians, much more so than actual lying (the “that woman” statement was Clinton’s moral low point, much more than the adultery and the cover-up). But is sincerity as virtuous as it seems? There was a cover of the European edition of The Economist in 2004 that showed Bush and Blair arm-in-arm, with the caption “Sincere Deceivers”: the point being that Bush and Blair believed their own lies before they sold them to us. This is, as any great liar will tell you, the best way and most convincing way to lie: Make yourself believe it first before you try to tell it to someone else. Here’s how Nietzsche described it:
“With all great deceivers there is a noteworthy occurrence to which they owe their power. In the actual act of deception, with all of its preparations, its enthralling in voice, expression and gesture, in the midst of the scenery designed to give it effect, they are overcome by belief in themselves….Self-deception has to exist if a grand effect is to be produced. For men believe in the truth of that which is plainly strongly believed.”
Sincerity, in short, is more complicated and may be less virtuous than it looks. And what about hypocrisy? Here’s Nietzsche again: “The hypocrite who always plays one role finally ceases to be a hypocrite….The profession of almost every man, even that of the artist, begins with hypocrisy, with an imitation from without, with a copying of what is most effective.” (We all know how that goes: “fake it until you make it.”) Erving Goffman made just the same point but extended it to all social interaction in his famous work on the presentation of self in ordinary life. We are all, always, actors.
Now we are turning somersaults, and it’s hard to know where the truth and character coincide. I think what we want from ourselves, at least as a start, is the truth about lying: that is, an admission that we all lie (yes, including our children), and that we do it much more often and more nimbly than any of us would like to admit. The next step—the epistemologically and morally responsible step—might be to recognize that part of one’s daily mental activity is the work of sorting out the lies from the truth: that is, of at least knowing when one is lying, of catching oneself at it. This is harder than it looks—in a study at Stanford, students underrated their own daily lying by a factor of ten.
The hardest lies to catch are the ones we tell ourselves, and it might be wise to use gentle, even furtive fingers in teasing those out. I don’t know about you, but for me it takes twelve self-deceptions just to get out of bed in the morning. Once that work is done, maybe we are in a position to be able to start worrying about avoiding such vices as hypocrisy, and cultivating such virtues as sincerity. The Ancient Greeks thought self-knowledge was a life-long project, and a dangerous one–witness Narcissus, who died because he came to know himself, and Oedipus, who became a blind beggar for the same reason. They understood, as Nietzsche put it, “the wisdom of appearances.”
Holden Caulfield was on to something when he admitted he was a liar and recognized that he was surrounded by phonies: We are the worst sort of phony when we pretend we don’t lie. So what are we teaching our two-year-olds when we tell them that lying is always wrong? Is it anything else than a lesson, at that tender age, in how to be a phony?
Photo by karindalziel
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