Lies, Lying and those who Listen
Something smells. Did you ever walk into a room with a fairly strong smell, but then after a while you fail to notice the odor? Your sense of smell comes from a combination of your nose and brain working in unison. The receptors in your nose fire, which ones fire depends on the specific smell, and sends signals, which are interpreted by your brain. A human can become acclimated to a constant smell after it has been detected by the nose, and analyzed by the brain, a process called sensory adaptation.
A recent study by Neil Garrett and Tali Sharot at the University College of London shows that small lies can become big lies in a somewhat similar fashion. In a nutshell, people were induced to lie (in a self-motivated scenario – meaning they did not have to lie) and as they lied they underwent a functional MRI, which monitored their brain activity. As people lied, the MRI showed a reduction in brain activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is an ancient part of our brain, near the base of the brain and is the center of our emotions. As brain activity went down, people lied more. The researchers found that it was possible to predict whether the subject would tell another whopper by their level of brain activity. In other words, there was less cognitive emotional load (the brain had to work less) when lying and that lower levels of brain activity resulted in more and larger lies.
This disconnection between the amygdala, where our emotions come from, and the higher thinking centers of our brain is also evident in psychopaths. Psychopathy is defined when a person exhibits antisocial behavior alongside emotional impairment, such as the inability to apologize, to show remorse, and a lack of guilty feelings for negative behaviors against others (Hare & Hare 1996). The anti-social behavior of the psychopath tends to be, “goal-directed towards achieving money, sexual opportunities or increased status” (Cornell et al, 1996). Neuroimaging studies have confirmed that amygdala dysfunction is associated with psychopathy (Tiihonen et al, 2000; Kiehl et al, 2001). They found that high levels of psychopathy were associated with reduced amygdala function. At this time there is no effective treatment for psychopathy.
A good overview of this mental illness can be found in the book by Hare, Snakes in Suits, When Psychopaths go to Work. Psychopaths can be charming, and persuasive. They can do great damage to others and yet are incapable of feeling guilt. Charles Manson, the well-studied psychopathic mass murderer, was able to convince others to participate in his crimes, others who were not necessarily psychopaths. How is that possible? The process is similar to how the Nazis in Germany got seemingly normal people to participate in horrific crimes against humanity. There is a long list of what makes people do horrific acts, believe in lies (even when they know they are lies) and take action based on those lies. Countless millions of lives have been taken over millennia because of our human failings and foibles with respect to what we believe and what we don’t. Books can be written, and have been on this topic, but here is some summaries on this topic that I have written:
- Adherence to authority figures – Stanley Milgram
- Role compliance – Phillip Zimbardo
- WYSIATI – What you see is all there is – Daniel Kahneman
- Confirmation bias
- Vilification of the “other”
- Desire for power and the “inner ring” – C.S. Lewis
- Wishful and magical thinking
An example of how one notorious episode of unsubstantiated accusations was stopped comes from the Senate trials on how communists and homosexuals had infiltrated our government and society in the 1950’s. Senator Joe McCarthy, a US Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957, was unmasked for the fraud that he was, telling lie after lie and pressuring others to do the same. Finally, his witch hunts came to an end, for a variety of reasons, but prominent among them was when the lying bully was stood up to by Mr. Welch, a lawyer who was asked to “unmask” and testify against others within his firm, during a Senate hearing. Mr. Welch famously stated: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Joe McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate and the story goes, as his prominence and power faded, drank himself to death not long afterwards.
Episodic periods of public and political lying, and the dissemination of fake news, seem to occur on a regular basis in our societies. One difference today is how easy it is for these lies to achieve wide-spread dissemination through social media avenues. But we, as humans, have always been susceptible to and in many respects are primed to believe in false information – until we say “enough!”