We're More Distrusting Than We Used To Be, But Expert On Lying Says All Is Not Lost

By Kim Ode
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

There’ve been a lot of references lately to the childhood tale of Pinocchio, whose nose grew when he lied, or the schoolyard chant of “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Our political landscape is rife with charges and countercharges of lying.

Yet Jeff Hancock says it’s important to remember that most of the time, people do tell the truth.

Honest.

Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, is known for his research into lying, and the effect (a positive one!) of technology and social media on honesty. We spoke to him about how we evolved to believe others, social media’s impact on lying and how we’ve Ubered ourselves into new forms of trusting.

Q: Are we hard-wired to lie? Is it a natural human trait?

A: Actually, I think we’re hard-wired to trust. We have what’s called “truth bias,” which means that we tend to believe other people, and there are cognitive, philosophical reasons that that’s the case.

If you and I were standing in a field and you said, “There’s a lion behind you,” if I have a truth bias, I will believe you. From an evolutionary bias, that’s good, because if I don’t believe you and you’re telling the truth, I’m dead. If you are lying, I may look bad because you fooled me, but I’m alive.

The point here is that a lot of work shows that our first instinct is to trust other people. Then, sometimes, we may become suspicious.

Q: But everyone seems to be more skeptical these days.

A: Since 1972, the General Social Survey has been asking: Can people be trusted? And the rate has been decreasing over time. [Between 1972 and 2016, the share of adults who think that most people can be trusted fell from 46 percent to 31 percent.] People suspect social media of playing a role because there’s been a massive increase in its use. But its effect actually is the opposite.

Q: How so?? You’d think its impersonal nature would make it easier to lie.

A: With people we know, technology does not lead us to a rampant increase in deception because that would damage relationships. Besides, computers and such also leave records of everything, and that’s really bad if they show that you’re lying.

It’s different with hostile foreign governments or scammers. They’re using people we don’t know to lie and create fake news and fake personas and bots. Now, say, I hear a story from Kim. I believe it because I know Kim and trust Kim. But Kim’s been fooled, and I don’t know that.

It’s almost like a biological model of a virus. Cancer tricks a cancer cell into thinking that replicating itself is the right thing to do for the body. The analogy is introducing a fake story to people who think they’re doing the right thing by spreading it.

Q: The job of fact-checking is important these days. Can there really be alternative facts? Or dueling lies?

A: It’s massively challenging. When it comes to opinions, you can see how things can be ambiguous. What is a fact and is not a fact has led to the hyperpolarization we see.

Here’s an example: I believe in climate change and the scientists who say it’s caused by human activity. But I didn’t do any actual research, and may even have a hard time understanding it. And the people who say they don’t believe in it, they’re making judgments the same way I am.

It’s important to understand that we’re not perfectly rational machines trying to comprehend the world in a purely objective way. We understand the world within a set of belief systems.

Q: So what is the future of lying, given our current preoccupation?

A: I think the danger is that we think everyone’s lying all the time. As a society, we’re grappling: How do I determine whether the knowledge I have about the world is valid or not? But we’ve been concerned about this for centuries.

Quite honestly, another aspect is that the president is very focused on lying. He talks about other people being liars and he says things that contradict himself. [In Trump’s 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal”] , he’s been very upfront about this, saying that he’s a salesman. He tells the “truth with hyperbole.” What’s different from past presidents is that he far more frequently accuses other people of lying.

Q: So how can we better realize that something we believe is a lie?

A: It’s actually very difficult to change a belief because emotionally, psychologically, we don’t want to be wrong. But it’s important to remember that most of the time, we are being told the truth.

There are costs to being duped, to being taken for money or scammed. But there also are costs of being paranoid and cynical. It undermines relationships. We’re less likely to feel connected to society. There are huge benefits to being trusting and we need to think about ways to restore trust in institutions.

Look at what’s happening with Airbnb and Uber, letting people into our homes and our cars. We’re trusting each other in all sorts of new ways. If you ask people about their thoughts, they say they can’t trust anyone. But looking at behavior tells us another story.

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