Lying About Lying

My mum divorced my father in the mid-eighties in India. If you know anything about India, then you know what a radical move this was on her part — divorcees were treated like dirt back then in India.

As you would expect, a few of her siblings were very upset about the divorce but not for reasons you may imagine. Back then, the family of a divorcee typically became the talk of the town. Their character, culture, and integrity were brought into question, and their social graph changed for the worse. What made matters worse in my mum's case is that she was divorcing a man from a particularly affluent family.

Her siblings were upset that she would do this to them. That she would subject the family to such an ordeal.

If memory serves me well — and knowing what we know about flashbulb memories, I have a nagging suspicion that it doesn't — this was the first real paradox I had to cope with in my life. I was about 7 years old, and I remember tormenting over why my mother's family, who is supposed to love her unconditionally, would not support her decision. I was angry, and that anger fueled a better part of my adolescence.

Anger is interesting because it is always accompanied by self-deception. We direct anger at people because they are doing something wrong; implicitly, we're acting on an assumption that we'd never have or would commit the same crime. And maybe that's true for a particular situation, e.g. I would never abandon my own sibling for social or monetary gains, but even that's unknowable.

Regardless, what's certain is that even as we direct our anger towards others failings, we do so blind to our own vast collection of flaws. Clearly, we must rank our own flaws as lesser evils, for if that weren't the case, we'd be more careful about criticizing others.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely

The fact is that we're all liars, but we've always known this deep down, and the topic has consumed many a philosopher's life. But the notion of deception took an interesting turn in the last couple of weeks with the release of Dan Ariely's latest book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. Ariely not only confirms much of what we've known intuititively (or through related readings), but sheds light on the nuances of deceiving others and ourselves. Not only does he share some of the most fascinating behavioral studies I've ever read, but he also pins down a fundamental truth about deception:

In a nutshell, the central thesis is that our behavior is driven by two opposing motivations. On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money as possible (this is the standard financial motivation). Clearly these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest, wonderful people? This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility comes into play.

Read it. Trust me, it's more fun spotting dishonesty, both in others and ourselves, than it is to pretend like it's something else, or worse, that it doesn't exist in places it most certainly does.