Friday, March 25, 2016

Born to lie

Can I get away with this?
No one wants to be called a liar. Or worse, to be caught lying. Yet lying is something we all do, often without even realizing it. This paradox of the human condition is explored in an episode of Ideas, a weekly radio programme by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  

Called Born to lie, and broadcast on January 13th, it looks at our instinct to lie, why we do it, how we teach children to do the same (yes we do though we kid ourselves the opposite is true) and why it can sometimes be a good thing.

The highlight for me was a recording of an experiment with a three year old child. I laughed out loud and had to put down a bag of logs I was carrying. It's a guessing game.  On the table is a toy animal which Cormac (the child) can't see, as he has to face the wall. A researcher (Sarah) tells him to guess what it is from the sound it makes, and as it quacks, Cormac correctly guesses it’s a duck.   Same procedure with a toy dog. Next up is bear. But at this juncture Sarah unexpectedly finds she has to interrupt the game. “Oh! You know what? I forgot something in the other room that I need. I'll put the toy on the table with the sound playing but don’t turn around and peek.  I'll be back in a minute.”  The sound plays: it's a tune having no association whatever with teddy bears.  Door closes. Cormac, satisfied he's alone in the room, peeks at the bear. Sarah the researcher returns with a blanket. She drapes it over the bear and Cormac is now allowed to turn round and guess what the toy is.  “A bear” he says.  “Wow, how clever, you didn't peek did you?” “No”. “How did you know it was a bear” “I just knew”.

Paul Kennedy host of Ideas
on CBC radio
Apparently it's a standard experiment in psychology, used to assess whether a child has reached the developmental milestone of pulling off a lie.  The test is to see if the child will volunteer the fact that he cheated or not.  There's also a white lie experiment. As a reward for taking part on the game, Cormac is given boring bar of plain white soap, and the test is does he pretend to like it.  (The presenter claims he does, though it didn't sound that way to me.)

Kang Lee of University of Toronto says: "If you discover your two-year old is telling a lie, instead of being alarmed, you should celebrate! Your child has arrived at an important stage of his or her life."  At two years of age about a third of children will lie to cover up a transgression. At three, about half. At four, about 80%. After five its almost 100%.

David Livingstone Smith, philosophy professor at the University of New England, says we have a collective investment in dishonesty. “A measure of dishonesty isn't optional. It's necessary. "   A contrary point of view is held by the Radical Honesty movement, founded by Brad Blanton, a psychotherapist.  You should always say just what you think even when this is uncomfortable. "I recommend you hurt peoples'  feelings and offend people. And then stick with them."  Unconvincing.  But a brilliant piece of radio.

I can't recommend Ideas too highly.  Here's the page for past episodes.  And here are a few of my favourites:-

Talking Philosophy: War and Peace. War is bad - but does this mean that peace at any price will do? Philosophers grapple with the nature, rules, and challenges of war and peace. November 2015, in two parts.

The Myth of the Secular is a 7-part series originally broadcast in 2012. The theme is that the old map of the religious and the secular no longer fits the territory, and we hear from theologians, anthropologists, sociologists and political philosophers. Does the mid 20th century orthodoxy of the withering away of religion need to be replaced? What about the Marxist idea that religion is a compensatory activity that the powerless resort to when politics doesn't work?  Is the very concept of “religion” a western category that never fully applied to non-Christian religions?

Global Justice - protecting human rights in a world of conflict. Global Justice is rooted in the aspiration to make the world a better place; but who decides what justice really is? And what happens when “universal” human values collide with interests? December 2015, in two parts.

By the way, there's a problem with the search function on the Ideas webpage. It's problematic using Firefox but it works well with Chrome or Internet Explorer. I imagine this applies to the whole CBC website.