Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lying Liars: Normal versus Pathological Liars

I have a strong aversion to habitual liars.  I'm talking about people who make up stories about the places they've been, the things they've done, and the feats they've accomplished.  These are people who lie about stupid things - for example, they tell you they grew up in Seattle when they've never seen the West Coast.  I don't like having to dig for the truth when I talk to someone.  I don't like having to view everything someone tells me with suspicion.  And most of all, I don't like being lied to.  Discovering you've been deceived is painful.  You feel angry, hurt, and betrayed.  You feel embarassed about being played for a fool.  You second guess yourself and your judgment. 

But are habitual liars - pathological liars - all that different from the rest of us?  Everyone lies.  We may, as a society, condemn lying.  We may say we value honesty.  And maybe we do.  But we still lie. 

Apparently, lying is normal.  We all do it and most of us do it quite frequently.  Studies have shown that the average adult tells at least one lie per day.  Mostly we lie to benefit ourselves (according to DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, and Epstein).  We lie to enhance our reputations, to avoid undesirable consequences, or to gain an edge over others.  Perhaps this is a natural consequence of individualism.  If the needs of the individual are primary then anything that benefits the individual over the group is useful.  Since lying often gives the individual an advantage over the whole, the individual sees lying as acceptable, or at least justifiable. 

While most of our lies are self-centered, we also lie to benefit others.  We do this mostly to spare the feelings of people we love ("That dress looks great on you," "This dinner you made is delicious," "I love the gift you gave me").  When we lie about our feelings we generally do so to benefit others and typically pretend to feel more positively than we actually do. 

Saxe points out that lying is often situationally determined.  Circumstances that increase the likelihood of lying include those in which the risk of getting caught lying is low, the potential benefits of lying are high, and the potential consequences of being honest are severe. 

So if lying is such a widespread practice, at what point does it become "pathological?"  Dike explains the difference between "normal" and "pathological" lying.  Oridnary lying is goal directed; it is done for a specific purpose with a desired outcome in mind.  Pathological lying has no identifiable purpose or, if it does, the lie is extremely disproportional to the benefit expected to be gained.  Sometimes the lies are even damaging to the person telling them.  For a pathological liar the benefit is psychological; lying in itself is rewarding. 

What kind of person enjoys telling lies?  Bursten suggests those with a "manipulative personality."  According to Bursten, someone with a manipulative personality has a fragile self-image.  He attempts to bolster this image by proving to himself that he is "better" than others.  By telling lies and getting away with them, he gains a sense of power over those he deceives.  He feels a level of contempt for his victims for lacking the ability to detect his deception.  This enables him to feel superior. 

Before we judge the pathological liar too harshly we should first consider the following.  Pathological liars may not be able to control their lying.  Some experts suspect lying is compulsive for the pathological liar.  He lies in spite of himself; he cannot help it.

There may also be something different about the brains of pathological liars.  Several studies have demonstrated a relationship between pathological lying and increaed white matter in the prefrontal cortex. 

So what have I learned about pathological liars?  Mostly I've learned that we don't know much.  There is a lack of consensus among experts about how even to define the term "pathological liar."  We don't know if pathological lying is a disorder unto itself or if it exists only as a symptom of other disorders.  We aren't sure how much, if any, control pathological liars have over their lying.  We don't even know if pathological liars always know they are lying! 

What I do know is my own preference, which is to be lied to as rarely as possible. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

We can't handle the truth! Self deception and why we lie to ourselves

We all lie to ourselves.  Some of us do it more than others but all of us do it.  There are obvious disadvantages to self deception.  When we deceive ourselves about the nature of reality we are ill-equipped to cope with the problems reality presents.  We can't deal with a reality we don't know exists.  This makes us vulnerable to threats we don't see until it is too late.  We are more likely to be blindsided by misfortune for which we could have prepared if we'd been more honest with ourselves.  When extreme, self deception becomes obvious to others, who respond with anything from pity to ridicule.  And yet, despite these disadvantages, we all engage in self deception.

So why do we do it? The most widely accepted theory is that - in certain circumstances -  self deception serves a protective function.  For example, self deception can preserve confidence and self esteem in the face of failure.  In the aftermath of tragedy or trauma, self deception can preserve a sense of safety and security we need to move forward.  Self deception can motivate us to persevere when the odds are against us.  Self deception can help us endure hardship and maintain hope for the future.  When the truth is too much to bear we lie to ourselves instead.

On the surface, self deception seems like a paradox.  I'll explain.  Technically, deception is an intentional act.  If I do something intentionally then by definition I am aware that I am doing it.  To deceive myself is to intentionally tell myself something that is not true.  But if I do this intentionally then I must be aware I am doing it.  If I know I am telling myself a lie then don't I also know the truth?  And if I know the truth then I haven't really deceived myself, right?

The question, then, is how can someone lie to himself and not know it? To my surprise, there are actually a number of ways this can happen.  One method involves information processing and attention.  A person can deceive himself by encoding only desirable or welcome information into memory while preventing unwelcome or undesirable information from being encoded.  This is essentially a matter of "selective attention," i.e. paying attention to certain aspects of available information while ignoring the rest.  This can be done on a conscious level, an unconscious level, or somewhere in between; we may or may not be fully aware of what we're doing. 

Another method of self deception is through avoidance.  I can keep myself uninformed of information or truths I do not want to know by avoiding activities, situations, or circumstances that might reveal them to me.  For example, a wife can avoid discovering her husband's affair by not calling him at work when he claims to be working late.  If she did call his work she would be told he'd left hours ago.  But she doesn't call because she doesn't want to know.

Self deception can also occur via biased interpretation.  Imagine I am presented with a large amount of information, some of which confirms my stance on a particular subject and some that contradicts it.  I accept the information that affirms my stance as empirically valid.  I decide the information contradicting my stance comes from an unreliable source and is therefore not valid.  I may reach this conclusions even if all of the information comes from the same source.  Self deception does not necessarally follow the rules of logic. 

I'll end with a couple of principles of self deception:
*People do not tell themselves the whole truth if a partial truth is preferable.
*In self deception, people tend to be motivated by what they want to be true. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A "Good" Apology

Dov Seidman nostalgically recalls  a time when apologies really meant something.  These days, he believes apology has become a sort of theater.  This is particularly true for public figures, whose apologies more and more frequently seem like performances rather than genuine expressions of remorse.  Seidman contends that the behavior of public figures simply reflects a broader societal norm.  According to Seidman, people today use apologies as a "verbal escape route" or a way to "get out of jail cheaply."  This trend has so cheapened the apology that it has become all but meaningless.

And so Dov Seidman, together with Andrew Ross Sorkin, have started a campaign to draw attention to the current "aplogy crisis."  Their project is called "Apology Watch" and can be found at nytimes.com/dealbook.  and on Twitter under the hashtage #ApologyWatch.  Seidman and Sorkin are asking readers to help them track new public apologies in real time.  The plan is to rate each apology on its level of overall sincerity. 

I first heard about Apology Watch on NPR.  I was immediately intrigued at the idea.  As I do with most things that spark my interest, I decided to do a little research on the topic.  While the focus of Apology Watch is primarily on people in the public arena, I am personally more interested in the function of apologies in interpersonal relationships.  Still, I hoped that some of Seidman's ideas might be applicable on both the large and small scale.     

Seidman believes that the sincerity of a given apology can be measured not so much by its content but by what comes both before and after it.  Before issuing an apology, Seidman contends, an offender should take the time to do some soul searching.  A good apology first requires a period of introspection.

An example of this, Seidman says, is the 2011 apology made by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings for raising subscription rates. The rate increase sparked an immediate backlash from consumers, who cancelled their subscriptions in droves. Stock prices fell over 7% in the weeks after the decision was announced. Two months after implementing the rate increase CEO Hastings issued an apology and restored prices to their original level. Hastings' apology was good, explains Seidman, because it began with "a complete vulnerable revelation" (i.e., success had made him arrogant and that this arrogance motivated his decision to raise prices).  Seidman believes that Hastings could only have come to this realization by looking inside himself and being honest about what he found (i.e., introspection). 

Seidman's suggestion, then, is that before issuing an apology an offender should take a complete moral inventory of himself.  Ken Blanchard and Margaret McBride suggest an offender ask himself the following:

*What mistakes did I make?
*Did I dismiss the feelings, wishes, or ideas of another person?
*Why did I do this?
*Was it an impulsive thoughtless behavior?
*Or was it calcualted?
*Did I act out of fear, anger, or frustration?
*What was my motivation?
*How long did I let this go on?  Has this behavior become a repeated pattern in my life?
*What truth am I not dealing with?
*Am I better than this behavior?

So according to Seidman, a period of introspection, self-examination, etc. should be undertaken before offering an apology.  There are also certain things that should come after a genuine apology.

Seidman states that a genuine apology must be followed by intentional and sustained changes in behavior.  If an apology is sincere, the person apologizing immediately begins to take action to repair, mitigate, or at least atone for whatever damage he has caused. 

So often people want forgiveness but are unwilling to accept the consequences of their actions.  Saying I'm sorry does not immediately restore trust once it has been betrayed; the restoration of trust takes time.  The victim of a betrayal may need the offender to take certain steps to demonstrate his trustworthiness, above and beyond what would otherwise be expected.  The offending party does not get to dictate what measures are "reasonable" or how much time it should take before trust is regained.  If he is genuinely sorry and truly wants forgiveness he must be willling to do whatever it takes for however long it takes.  These are the consequences of his actions.  Aplogizing does not exempt him from these consequences. 

This is something Seidman does not mention in his writing but that I think is relevant.  Perhaps we, as a society, let people off too easily.  Maybe we are too willing to forgive and forget once a public figure apologizes for bad behavior.  A movie star does something appalling; we still watch his movies.  A CEO takes advantage of his customers; we still buy his products or services.  A company abuses its employees; we continue to shop there.  A chemical company dumps toxins in the water supply?  A slap on the wrist and a license to keep operating.  We no longer hold anyone accountable.  We're probably lucky that people bother to apologize at all. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Rigid Personality

My husband says I'm inflexible.  He's not the first person to tell me this.  I don't deny it.  I have a strong preference for structure over chaos.  It takes me a while to adjust to big changes.  I am easily stressed out, even over small things.  I like my space to be clean (or at least tidy).  Messiness makes me feel like the room is closing in on me. 

If something needs to be done I prefer to go ahead and do it as soon as possible; I rarely procrastinate.  I like to plan activities and/or events in advance.  I don't like spur of the moment invitations and will typically decline them. I am very attached to my routines. If there is somewhere I've planned to go at a particular time or something I do regularly on certain days I generally resist any attempts by other people to intefere. 

So no, I am not particularly flexible.  I can bend and I do bend, but only under a limited number of extenuating circumstances. 

I admit that I can be too "rigid" at times.  This sometimes leads to negative consequences.  As I said before, I get stressed out a lot.  I'm not always anxious but I do struggle with anxiety.  I am stubborn to a fault.  I become irritable and unpleasant when I feel overwhelmed. 

My husband highlights these consequences and insists that I change.  I'm too rigid, he says.  I won't listen to reason.  (I completely disagree with the latter sentiment.  I do listen to reason.  It's just that I do not always find his "reason" compelling.  I listen to it and then I disagree.  I have a right to disagree.  It doesn't mean I'm unreasonable).

While I disagree with the crux of my husband's argument, buried within it lies a valid point.  I can be too rigid. 

And yet this very same quality bestows so many benefits.  I am consistent, steady, and reliable.  I get things done.  I am responsible.  I am conscientious.   I am predictable. This may not make me the most exciting person in the world but I'm okay with that. People know what to expect from me; there is something comforting about that.  I finish what I start; I follow through with committments.  Because of this I have, for example, no difficulty exercising regularly and maintaining healthy eating habits.  In fact, I don't really have a problem maintaing any positive habit, once it becomes a habit.  I'm good at habits.  Habits are my thing.

It is difficult for me to know where to draw the line.  Yes I'm a bit rigid but to a certain degree this works well for me.  It enables me to structure my life in a way that ensures I have time to devote to every important person, activity, event, and/or obligation.  I realize, however, that being too rigid creates problems.  Sometimes I refuse to budge, even when I know I'm making things more difficult than they have to be.  There is definitely room for improvement.

When it comes to my marriage, I know that trying to be more flexible will decrease conflict and increase harmony.  I also believe, however, that a great deal of benefit would come from my husband putting effort into trying to understand and accept me as I am, for who I am, instead of wanting me to be a different "type" or "kind" of person.  (And that goes both ways, of course, i.e., me learning to accept him as he is).  I am open to self-improvement but I can't be a different person.  I don't want to be a different person.  And I don't want anyone to pressure me into being anyone other than myself.  If I say to my husband, "This is who I am.  Please try to accept me," am I just being rigid and obstinate?  I am confused at this point about whether I should be working on changing myself or encouraging him to to accept me as I am...

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