Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Psychology of Lying and Capitalism

Supporters of capitalism tend to espouse its greatness in large part by intertwining it with the morality and fairness of meritocracy. Frequent are the statements that the rich are rich because they deserve it and the poor are poor because they deserve it. Unfortunately these supporters forget that in society a meritocracy does not function in a vacuum and one of the most critical elements of a genuine meritocracy is the accurate and transparent communication of information. In short actors in a society must be honest and truthful with one another otherwise natural skill is muted by misinformation and the liars and cheaters prosper.

How can an individual expect to make the best possible decisions, not only for that individual, but all parties involved when certain pieces of information are purposely omitted and/or falsely represented? The ability to effectively cooperate with one another is also dependent on all of the information being as accurate as possible when considering the specific circumstances else all parties will lie due to the belief that all other parties are lying to improve their own positions and probability of gain. All of this mistrust and false information will lead to the optimal solution rarely being identified and implemented. Sadly honesty in modern times is significantly lacking, which damages the notion that capitalism has some meaningful quality of fairness based in merit achievement. So to redeem capitalism one must ask the question of why people lie in the first place and then address those causes to reduce the probability that people lie.

The overall rationality for lying is somewhat mysterious. While initially there may be rational reasons for lying, when actually examining those reasons the rationality falls apart in all but one situation. The first reason someone lies is in order to impress someone. Typically the need to impress someone is derived from the lack of self-confidence in one's own abilities and status, for those who are confident care little of the negative opinions of others that are not rooted in fact. Lying about one's accomplishments to impress someone for the purpose of gaining his/her respect is also irrational because as cliché as it sounds if one must lie to gain an individual’s respect that respect has not been genuinely gained, for respect must be earned; to gain genuine respect through deceit is not possible. Unfortunately too many people have come to portray this fraudulent version of respect for the genuine article.

Similar to respect lying to attain someone’s admiration is equally irrational because as idealistic as it sounds the admiration of no individual is worth the honor that is lost when lying to attain it. If one lives life according to his/her own beliefs and ethics that individual has no reason to lie about the way he/she lives life. Unfortunately in modern times talk about relying on honor and integrity to drive behavior seems foolish, especially with the level of money and power typically at stake. These elements are what drive most people to misrepresent themselves to others, thus the best way to stop it is to produce punishment that will not only take these opportunities away, but also make it more difficult to acquire future opportunities for money and power. Society is too lenient on those who lie intentionally and too willing to offer unconditional second, third, fourth, etc. chances. Later the logic behind the appropriate responses to dissuade lying will be discussed.

The second reason someone lies is in order to evade responsibility for specific actions. The motivation to evade responsibility stems from two causes. First, no one likes to be punished, thus misrepresentation of the facts is carried out to evade punishment. Second, some people believe that taking responsibility for an action that does not produce a favorable result diminishes their reputation in the eyes of those with some level of influence in the personal or professional prospects of that individual. This loss of respect may reduce the number of available opportunities for personal or professional advancement. Immaturity and lack of personal pride are significant causes of such behavior. However, there is another element to how individuals judge success that needs to be addressed because it is relevant to this motivation for lying.

Most individuals, incorrectly, judge the success of an action based solely on its outcome instead of the thought and methodology that went into the creation and execution of the action. A primary example of this reasoning is frequently demonstrated in sporting events. Suppose a football game is in the mid-fourth quarter with Team A leading Team B 10 to 6, but Team B has the ball on their own 42-yard line and it is fourth down and 6 to go. In one instance the coach elects to go for it by faking a punt and picks up the first down. What is the typical response of the television commentators? “What a gutsy call by Coach Stan. He knew that his team needed a spark and that Team A would be unprepared. That is just trusting your team to go get you the first down….” In a parallel world assume the exact same conditions, individuals and play except for one linebacker makes an assignment mistake and fills the A gap instead of the B gap resulting in him making the tackle and preventing a successful conversion. Now what do the television commentators say? “What a stupid call by Coach Stan. There is plenty of time left in the quarter and your defense is playing exceptionally well, the smart play is to punt it pinning Team B deep in their zone. That gives your defense an excellent chance to hold netting you better field position and a better opportunity to get that touchdown….”

So the exact same situation and action results in two different outcomes due to a single minute deviation that could not be accounted for by Coach Stan creates two dramatically different judgments by the television commentators and probably the causal fan as well. It is not reasonable to characterize the decision by Coach Smith to go for it as good or bad based principally on the outcome, yet the result of an action is the primary, if not only, criteria most people use. Instead society needs to be reasonable in its evaluation of decisions and look at the methodology and information available that went into making the decision instead of the result.

A majority of the time the result of a decision can be predicted when looking at the available information at the time of the decision and how the decision-makers interpreted and blended the relevant pieces of that information together to form a strategy. Therefore, outside of the rare occurrence when an unpredictable disturbance arises in the decision-making process, it is significantly more appropriate and advantageous to analyze this process instead of the result when judging action. Understanding the correct and the incorrect portions of the analysis can create precedence to what thought-processes typically lead to positive outcomes and what ones typically lead to negative outcomes, so one can learn not to repeat mistakes and emphasize successful strategies.

Changing this perception and habit in evaluating decision-making should reduce both the effectiveness and the rationality behind lying to avoid punishment for a bad result. Instead punishment will be issued for poor decision-making and analysis because these are the elements that are completely controllable by the individual, as long as information is honestly and transparently available. Also if methodology is judged versus result then the evaluation method has more parameters that can be tracked making it more difficult for someone to get away with lying about their role in the decision making process.

Finally, an individual may lie in order to protect another person either physically or emotionally. Most of the time these types of lies are classified as “little white lies” based on their overall perceived significance. From an emotional standpoint while it may seem that sparing feelings or creating an ego boost is a good idea, it is not because lying in this situation is both morally and rationally incorrect. It perpetrates a false reality for the individual asking the question and does not create motivation to solve the underlying problem doing a disservice to that individual. It would be wiser to give an honest opinion to the other individual with an associated reason for such an opinion, so he/she would have the opportunity to rectify any procedure or action which brought about the negative opinion or receive genuine confidence from a genuine positive opinion.

The only lie that can be regarded as appropriate is one that prevents unjustified severe physical harm to an individual. The most prominent example of such a lie could be seen from individuals in Nazi-Germany when hiding Jewish individuals. When asked by German authorities whether or not they were harboring Jews, these individuals lied and answered “no” thereby saving the lives of those Jewish individuals they were harboring. If some honor can be ascribed to the act of lying this would be the reason. However, the severity of this situation must be respected, for it is quite rare and most people, especially those living in the developed world, will never experience this type of justification for a lie. For example it is not appropriate to lie to prevent someone from receiving a citation for marijuana possession.

In addition to being truthful, it is the duty of all individuals to seek the truth. Seeking the truth is not so dramatic as uncovering the meaning of life or the origins of the universe, but instead seeking the truth involves accumulating as much relevant information as possible and using it to determine the what actually happened, what should happen when and if certain decisions are made.

One of the problems with lying is that it appears to be inherent in the human condition. Even without instruction young children lie to conceal actions they believe are wrong or not in line with the desires of authority figures. Not surprisingly as they age children become even more sophisticated liars. While this behavior is troubling, some parties believe that it can be rectified through simple story telling. Researchers in Toronto utilized different moral messages from three different stories, Pinocchio, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and the George Washington and the Cherry Tree myth, to attempt to modify moral behavior in children ages three to seven if they listened to one of these stories before completing a task where cheating was made easy and rewarding.1 The results of this study concluded that the negative consequences associated with lying were unable to modify behavior regardless of its severity; however, the positive praise message that young Washington receives after admitting to his alleged transgression does lead to a higher probability that children would admit to cheating.

The researchers concluded that the Washington story emphasized the virtues of honesty and that telling the truth leads to positive outcomes and consequences. This belief was further supported by no change in behavior when the outcome of the Washington story was changed from a positive one to a negative one similar to the Wolf and Pinocchio stories. However, there is a glaring concern with this study relative to genuine morality. The researchers did not look at how the children would respond after hearing a story where an individual is praised for telling the truth regarding the commission of a negative transgression, but also punished for the admitted transgression; this is the outcome that happens in reality.

For example in the Washington-Cherry Tree story Washington is not punished for chopping down the cherry tree. It is not surprising that children would resonate with the message that if you do something wrong all you have to do is admit to it and there will be no further punishment and you will receive praise for being honest. Therefore, it is unclear how children would respond if these above beliefs about honesty were shattered when they are punished for what they admit to doing. Therefore, children should be taught that there is virtue to admitting transgressions, but also to expect an appropriate punishment for those transgressions. One thing that both children and adults understand is fairness.

The Toronto study directly addressed whether or not a child could be influenced morally by stories and change behavior accordingly, not whether or not honest admissions to wrongdoings was the best moral strategy. Clearly it would be best if children were instructed not to commit wrongdoings in the first place. While the above sentence is easy to say it is more difficult to put into practice. There are a multitude of moral philosophies that many individuals in society practice that conflict with each other. Even the supposed “no brainers” of morality, no slavery and sufficient access to resources, are not agreed upon.

So what can be done? The problem sounds very difficult, but the solution is very simple. Society as a whole should stress the importance of honesty in both words and actions and support that importance through significant punishment for those who are not honest. While cliché the inherent nature of lying is that individuals do so because they realize that the truth is detrimental to their standing in some manner. If one’s personal moral philosophy is regarded as superior and/or logical there should be no need to lie to defend it. Therefore, those who lie should be regarded as weak individuals who do not have confidence in their beliefs because they must distort those beliefs when interacting with society.

Society must also strengthen its resolve against dishonestly. One example of the current disparity in society regarding the importance of honesty is the ridiculously lenient perjury laws in basically all countries other than Australia. While in the United States the maximum sentence for perjury can be up to 5 years, jail sentences rarely exceed 2 years, thus what stops an individual from simply lying to avoid the numerous other criminal violations that have harsher penalties? The sad fact is nothing, which is why so many individuals who are guilty of criminal offenses pled not guilty and then lie about their involvement. Even if the lie is later discovered after the lying party has won his/her trial the penalty is so pathetic, usually ending up as time served, that the consequences are minimal and because of the 5th Amendment nothing can be done about the not guilty verdict that was achieved through deceit. Therefore, perjury must have a much stiffer criminal penalty if honesty is going to have any real relevance in the justice system.

Another example, one that too frequently occurs, is that when it is revealed that someone lies on his/her resume, the only typical outcome is termination from that job. This punishment does not support the value of honesty when the only consequence is losing the job, a job that that fired individual originally believed he/she was not qualified to compete for, thus creating the motivation for lying on the resume in the first place. When the penalty for lying is nothing but the expected outcome that would have resulted from honesty in the first place, then there is great motivation to lie. Therefore, a company that fires an employee for lying on their resume about something significant should be able to legally recoup all of the salary and benefits paid to that employee over the period that he/she worked at that company.

Overall modern society has regrettably accepted the philosophy that the ends justify the means, which allow individuals to lie and cheat as long as it produces a favorable result for those individuals. Unfortunately lying and cheating mitigates the alleged elements of meritocracy that comprise capitalism for it is not skill that allows the individual to achieve greatness, but the ability to cheat the system. Therefore, for capitalism to even approach that of a meritocracy society must demand more honest accountability from its citizens and elements of authority. Dishonesty must be punished accordingly rather than lightly scolded then quickly forgotten. Society will never attain anything close to its full potential until it legitimately begins to accept “honesty is the best policy”.

Citations –

1. Herbert, Wray. “Chopping the Cherry Tree: How Kids Learn Honesty.” Huffingtonpost.

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