The Science Behind Deceptive Ways

June 10, 2017

In the fall of 1989 Princeton University welcomed into its freshman class a young man named Alexi Santana, whose life story the admissions committee had found extraordinarily compelling.

He had barely received any formal schooling. He had spent his adolescence almost entirely on his own, living outdoors in Utah, where he’d herded cattle, raised sheep, and read philosophy. Running in the Mojave Desert, he had trained himself to be a distance runner.

Santana quickly became something of a star on campus. Academically too he did well, earning A’s in nearly every course. His reserved manner and unusual background suffused him with an enigmatic appeal. When a suite mate asked Santana how his bed always seemed to be perfectly made, he answered that he slept on the floor. It seemed perfectly logical that someone who had spent much of his life sleeping outdoors would have no fondness for a bed.

Except that Santana’s story was a lie. About 18 months after he enrolled, a woman recognized him as somebody she’d known as Jay Huntsman at Palo Alto High School in California six years earlier. But even that wasn’t his real name. Princeton officials eventually learned that he was actually James Hogue, a 31-year-old who had served a prison sentence in Utah for possession of stolen tools and bike parts. He was taken away from Princeton in handcuffs.

In the years since, Hogue has been arrested several times on theft charges. In November, when he was arrested for stealing in Aspen, Colorado, he tried to pass himself off as someone else.

The history of humankind is strewn with crafty and seasoned liars like Hogue. Many are criminals who spin lies and weave deceptions to gain unjust rewards—as the financier Bernie Madoff did for years, duping investors out of billions of dollars until his Ponzi scheme collapsed. Some are politicians who lie to come to power or cling to it, as Richard Nixon famously did when he denied any role in the Watergate scandal.

Sometimes people lie to inflate their image—a motivation that might best explain President Donald Trump’s demonstrably false assertion that his Inauguration crowd was bigger than President Barack Obama’s first one. People lie to cover up bad behavior, as American swimmer Ryan Lochte did during the 2016 Summer Olympics by claiming to have been robbed at gunpoint at a gas station when, in fact, he and his teammates, drunk after a party, had been confronted by armed security guards after damaging property. Even academic science—a world largely inhabited by people devoted to the pursuit of truth—has been shown to contain a rogues’ gallery of deceivers, such as physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, whose purported breakthroughs in molecular semiconductor research proved to be fraudulent.

These liars earned notoriety because of how egregious, brazen, or damaging their falsehoods were. But their deceit doesn’t make them as much of an aberration as we might think. The lies that impostors, swindlers, and boasting politicians tell merely sit at the apex of a pyramid of untruths that have characterized human behavior for eons.

Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at. We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends, and loved ones. Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.

The ubiquity of lying was first documented systematically by Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Two decades ago DePaulo and her colleagues asked 147 adults to jot down for a week every instance they tried to mislead someone. The researchers found that the subjects lied on average one or two times a day. Most of these untruths were innocuous, intended to hide one’s inadequacies or to protect the feelings of others.

Some lies were excuses—one subject blamed the failure to take out the garbage on not knowing where it needed to go. Yet other lies—such as a claim of being a diplomat’s son—were aimed at presenting a false image. While these were minor transgressions, a later study by DePaulo and other colleagues involving a similar sample indicated that most people have, at some point, told one or more “serious lies”—hiding an affair from a spouse, for example, or making false claims on a college application.

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