Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Truth and lies

I read a bunch of articles yesterday so I didn't feel like a total slacker. I also went through the newest American Scientist. (This is not to be confused with "Scientific American," which, from what I've seen of it, has slipped in quality in recent years. American Scientist is the publication of Sigma Xi, a scientific society - all sciences - to which I belong. I think membership requires only having given a professional presentation somewhere or having published in a journal. Well, and paying the dues, but they are not bad as far as society dues go)

I like American Scientist; it's a good way to keep up with fields outside my own and often the articles are good syntheses of a couple of different areas (they have had a few good ones on the antibiotic-resistance problem).

Anyway, this month's issue had an article about lying, and especially cognitive development and lying. They listed a few kinds of lies:

The "social" lie (E.g., "Your haircut looks FINE.")
The lie to avoid punishment ("I don't know HOW that lamp got broken.")
The lie-to-self ("No, I really don't want to go out with that person...yes, they turned me down, but you know? they're a jerk")

The lie to harm others ("I saw Joe at this party and he was smoking pot.")

They point out that the lie-to-harm-others is the one generally seen as the most harmful one.

(They leave out one class I've seen: the lie to make the person seem more important than they are. You know, the person who stretches their accomplishments or outright makes stuff up to impress people? I'd say that's worse than a "your haircut looks fine, really" lie but not as bad as a "I saw Joe smoking pot" lie, at least in terms of social damage)

One of the things they mentioned was that girls seemed to learn how to do at least two kinds of social lies earlier than boys do - one of them being the "your haircut looks fine" type of lies, the other one being the "smile and swallow your disappointment" lie.

Two experiments were done with kids. One was called the "rouge" experiment, where an adult comes in a room with a spot of rouge or lipstick on their nose - something obviously not meant to be there. They get their picture taken in view of the children, and then another adult comes in and asks if the first adult looked "OK" to them. (And as an adult, you know? I'd go the opposite direction of these kids and say, "Well, they had a big blotch of something on their nose, I don't know if they knew that.") At a certain age, or perhaps stage of development, the kids start saying "Oh yes, they looked okay" even though they know the person didn't.

The more devious experiment (in my mind) is one where they showed kids three or four toys and asked them to rank them from the one they liked best to the one they liked least. Then, the experimenter gave the child a problem to solve, and promised the child they'd get the "best" toy after solving it. And then, they give the child the toy that the child had said they liked least - and looked at how the children reacted. After a certain age (younger in the girls, apparently), the kids learn how to mask their disappointment.

And, I don't know. I've bitterly commented that adulthood consists a lot of swallowing disappointment and pretending it doesn't matter, and it's interesting how early that ability seems to establish. (Boys are later than girls. I don't know if that's an issue of maturity - supposedly girls mature faster - or socialization, because girls tend to be socialized more, I think, not to disappoint other people, especially "adults."). And I wonder if it's a factor of my own brain wiring that it's harder for me to do the swallowing-disappointment thing, to the point of where some little governor in my brain has to go, "Hey, stupid! Look like you're happy, don't let on that this isn't what you wanted!" but it's a few milliseconds after I've probably registered disappointment on my face.

I also wonder if there isn't something related to the difference in boy vs. girl bullying there. I was reading an article online last night about how girl bullying often takes the form of excluding other girls - which I personally found to be very true as a kid growing up. That is, girls learn early on what kind of things to do to avoid hurting others' feelings....but they also learn how insidiously you can USE hurting others' feelings against them at times. Whereas boys tend to be more direct and more physical. (And maybe, the bully-girls can suck up to adults better, and therefore hide what they're doing. I KNOW there were times I reported some snarky thing a girl said to me and the adult interpreted it as innocent - of course they weren't there to hear the tone of voice, and they didn't know the long pattern of behavior. But it can be very isolating to say "Dawn said X to me" and have the adult say, "I don't see what you are upset about. It sounds like Dawn is just trying to be your friend" when you, as the child, know that is so so not true.)

The "social" lies (acting happy when you get a terrible gift, telling someone that their haircut looks fine, saying that it's "no problem" to do some kind of thing that it does annoy you slightly to have to do) are, I don't know, not "bad" lies necessarily. In a lot of cases they preserve the feelings of the other person. (Though I would hope if someone had a truly terrible haircut, and one that maybe going to a different hairdresser and having more work done would fix, that someone would take them aside and tell them that). The swallowing-disappointment kind of lies probably mainly hurt the person doing the lying, in that they are suppressing a negative emotion (then again, there are some psychologists who say that suppressing certain negative emotions actually makes them go away faster). And it's part of the not-being-a-monster-of-ego thing that adulthood requires, to avoid always complaining or lashing out when you don't get what you wanted.

The lies-to-avoid-punishment, well, I think as a kid you learn at some point that those are really stupid lies - you're probably going to be found out, and then it's going to be way worse. (I suppose there are some people who don't learn that, but in my family, it was standard that if you lied at first about something, the punishment you faced was considerably worse than if you just confessed straight off. Then again, I've seen some on some bureaucracies who continue to pile it on, so maybe some people DON'T learn that confessing straight off is better).

The lies-to-self are sort of stupid but probably only hurt the person doing the lying.

I don't know that I've ever encountered someone who regularly lied to hurt other people, but I think that's part of the definition of a sociopath. Maybe the occasional lie-to-hurt-others falls under the category of 'regular sin,' though someone who did that regularly - well, I'd run the other way from them.

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