Playing Fast And Loose With The Truth

A few months ago, I was having a conversation with someone and she said something I was pretty sure wasn't true. I don’t know if it was a deliberate lie. It may have just been that this particular person was uninformed. But she said it with the full confidence that what she’d said was true. I pushed back a little, and she instantly defended her position. 

My first instinct was just to let it go. I typically don’t go out of my way to cause friction in social settings. Besides, it was an inconsequential thing I didn’t really care about. But I was feeling a little pissy at the time, so I fact-checked her by looking it up on my phone. And I was right. She had stated something that wasn’t true and then doubled down on it. 

As I said, it was inconsequential. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was a lot riding on whether or not what she said was true? What if this person was in a position of power, like -- oh, I don’t know, the President of the United States? 



The role of truth in our social environment is currently in flux. I cannot remember a time when we have been more suspicious of what we see, read and hear on a daily basis. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, less than 40% of us trust what we hear on the news. And when that news comes through our social media feed, the level of distrust jumps to a staggering 80%.

Catching someone in a lie has significant social and cognitive implications. We humans like to start from a default position of trust. If we can do that, it eliminates a lot of social friction and cognitive effort. We only go to not trusting when we have to protect ourselves. 

Our proclivity for trust is what has made global commerce and human advancement possible. But, unfortunately, it does leave us vulnerable. Collectively, we usually play by the same playbook I was initially going to use in my opening example. It’s just easier to go along with what people say, even if we may doubt that it’s true. This is especially so if the untruth is delivered with confidence.

We humans love confidence in others, because it means we don’t have to work as hard. Confidence is a signal we use to decide to trust, and trust is always easier than distrust. The more confident the delivery, the less likely we are to question it.

It’s this natural human tendency that put the “con” in “con artist.” “Con” is short for confidence, and it originates with an individual named William Thompson, who plied the streets of New York in the 1840s.

He would walk up to a total stranger who was obviously well-off and greet them like a long-lost friend. After a few minutes of friendly conversation, during which the target would be desperately trying to place this individual, Thompson would ask for the loan of something of value. He would then set his hook with this: “Do you have confidence in me to loan me this [item] till tomorrow?”  The success of this scam was totally dependent on an imbalance of confidence: extreme confidence on the part of the con artist, and a lack of confidence on the part of the target.

It’s ironic that in an era where it’s easier than ever to fact-check, we are seeing increasing disregard for the truth. According to he Washington Post, Donald Trump passed a misinformation milestone on July 9, making 20,000 false or misleading claims since he became President. He surged past that particular post when he lied 62 times on that day alone. I don’t even think I talk 62 times per day. 

This habit of playing fast and loose with the truth is not Trump’s alone. Unfortunately, egregious lying has been normalized in today’s world. We have now entered an era where full-time fact-checking is necessary. On July 7, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said we need a Biden-Trump debate, but only on two conditions: First, only if Trump releases his tax returns, and second, only if there is a non-partisan real-time fact-checking team keeping the debaters accountable. 

We have accepted this as the new normal. But we shouldn’t. There's an unacceptable cost we’re paying by doing so. And that cost becomes apparent when we think about the consequence of lying on a personal basis. 

If we catch an acquaintance in a deliberate lie, we put them in the untrustworthy column. We are forced into a default position of suspicion whenever we deal with them in the future. This puts a huge cognitive load on us. 

As I said before, it takes much more effort not to trust someone. It makes it exponentially harder to do business with them. It makes it more difficult to enjoy their company. It introduces friction into our relationship with them. 

Even if the lie is not deliberate but stated with confidence, we label them as uninformed. Again, we trust them less.

Now multiply this effort by everyone. You quickly see where the model breaks down. Lying may give the liar a temporary advantage, but it’s akin to a self-limiting predator-prey model. If it went unchecked, soon the liars would only have other liars to deal with. It’s just not sustainable.

Truth exists for a reason. It’s the best social strategy for the long term. We should fight harder for it.

2 comments about "Playing Fast And Loose With The Truth".
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  1. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, August 4, 2020 at 10:43 a.m.

    Gord, you make some excellent points. While there is good reason to focus on the message sources and fact checking, news media often ignore "why" people believe false information. The "why" is proving more difficult to ascertain than previously thought. Confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are often the go-to explanations. Research from areas ranging from neuroscience to emotional analytics suggest it's far more complex. It's also ironic that special interest groups and politicians have long-used principles discovered by "science" to convince people to deny scientific findings--think climate change. 

  2. PJ Lehrer from NYU, August 5, 2020 at 10:38 a.m.

    The research shows that we mistake familiarity for truth.  So by the third time we hear a lie we believe that it is true.

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