the opposite of detecting false beliefs

My last post was about detecting false beliefs (and what that actually might mean); this post is about promoting false beliefs, you know, lying. While writing the earlier post, I thought about when someone gives another person false information and then monitors whether the other believes the lie, and that brought to mind my old clinical work where sometimes the patient’s or others’ prevarications were relevant to treatment. Lying is natural and oftentimes normal, even a social grace as when I give someone the impression that I enjoyed, being a friendly if grumpy old guy, their company when it was actually quite tedious (at best). Misleading others is an trick; watch young dogs at play and soon enough you will see a feint, communicating one intent before acting on another in the effort to gain some advantage, a common motivation for lying. Or walk in our meadow and watch a meadow lark fly as if they have a broken wing and lure some predator (not me, for sure) away from their nest. Sometimes we lie to play a humorous trick, inculcating a false belief and laugh when the deceit is revealed, as in ‘April fools!’

But sometimes lying is a common behavior signaling dishonesty and pathology. Consider the infamous used car salesman who says the car was driven only on Sundays by a little old lady when actually it was pulled out of a flooded lot. In my clinical work with court involved youth I often had to differentiate two different ways of lying. The first was the anti-social, psychopathic sort of lying. Here the person is trying to gain some advantage in order to cheat the other. The psychopath usually does this in a skilled fashion, incorporating just enough truth for a veneer of credibility; they do not want to be caught because then their scam will not work. When caught in the lie, they will cover up, make excuses, and try to disappear. An important feature here is that such a person actively, keenly monitors the other person’s reactions to their prevarication, the better to pull one over on them.

The second sort of lying derives from an attachment disorder. I saw much of this in my work with children whose parenting had not been adequate enough to facilitate a stable parent-child bond and attachment. Without proper attachment a child grows up lacking the healthy ability to regulate their own emotions, to reason fully with cause and effect and so do not learn from the sequential analysis of their actions.   And the development of empathy is stunted, even to the degree that they do not read another’s emotions or response because it is irrelevant to them. In the end they do not judge their own expressed thoughts as inaccurate when faced with contradiction, even evidence, because their wish dominates any formation of truth, and another’s opinion on the matter is so incongruous that they cannot understand why someone would say such a contrary thing. (Remember the old Disney saying, “A dream is a wish your heart makes.” People with attachment disorders live in an impervious dream they take for reality). A common example was when a parent, often adoptive, saw the child do something wrong, confront them lovingly in the effort to shape development, only to be met with firm, naïve denial. “But I saw you,” “No you didn’t, I did not do that,” was often how the narrative went. When diagnosed early, intense therapy was needed to counteract the effects of a negative or disorganized attachment.

Such children grow up and carry on some of these behaviors. They have a different version of the truth so their lies are your problem; the world is black and white and relates only to their self-appraisal; they can turn on a friend, like they did with their foster parents, who has violated their expectations, by belittling them or viciously accusing them of some heinous, albeit imaginary, insult. These people may be intelligent, academically and professionally successful. And their friends and familiars can go crazy trying to relate in a straightforward way. They are not really psychopaths because they do not really care if they are caught in a lie, but they are like psychopaths in that they do not care if they hurt someone, the difference being that attachment disordered people do not care because the other’s feelings are irrelevant to their world (in their dream everyone wants what is best for them) and a psychopathic person does not care because they rationalize that no one cares about their feelings so they are acting just like the rest of the world.

I do not claim to have elucidated this distinction rigorously here, only to have described a clinical rule of thumb. I do so to illustrate the thought from the previous post on discerning false beliefs and to provide another frame to the seeming incoherency of our political discourse. In our ‘polarized’ civics, and I wonder if that term is more a creation of the pundits’ narratives to help themselves have a job, each side detects the other’s false beliefs; each side’s beliefs are seemingly impervious to rational exchange. Political lies used to be characterized as social niceties needed for deal making; consider, for example, LBJ. Certainly those who push patently false narratives do so for self-aggrandizement and with political ill-will. Nowadays we are seeing more of the dream state where objective reality matters naught. The elected politician assumes everyone endorses his fantasies of power and that their ideology contains no false belief to detect. All too often the constraints imposed by the need for pragmatic effective action are dissolved in a pool of licentious rhetoric fed by demagoguery. Reality testing to ensure rational actions before hand and to develop improvements later on becomes unimportant and a political nuisance. Some politicians lie in an anti-social manner in the effort to get one by the public; some lie in a disordered attachment manner so that to the extent we participate in their egocentric dream, they will exploit their office for their own power and wealth until they meet external limits. Of course, some do both, but some only lie in a normal, healthy manner; they even promote a pragmatic truth filled effort to govern intelligently with compassion.

Some have made the case that democracy is an intelligent outcome of cultural evolution as it promotes social engagement and justice. One factor in its success, it seems to me from this biological perspective, is its citizens’ discrimination of false beliefs and their capacity for pragmatic rational action based upon intelligent assays of reality. Species, cultures, and nations come and go; they evolve and devolve into and out of existence with no surety except for their resilience and adaptability to change, and one factor in that history shows to be the citizens’ ability to detect false beliefs. So now I am beginning to seriously worry.

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