[This post has been edited from its original version. Therefore some of the comments following the post may refer to language and ideas that were originally in the post but are no longer in it post-revision. - T.]
There are two thoughts many people have when asked a question: (1) they want to give the answer that gives the most flattering impression and (2) they often go so far as to delude themselves into believing at some level that this flattering fiction is actually true. Not everyone is emotionally and psychologically strong enough to reveal unflattering truths about themselves, especially to themselves. Self-deception is a very important coping mechanism among human beings. And women are much better at believing their own BS than men.
Regarding self-deception, consider the “illusion of invulnerability” effect found in studies conducted by Robert Levine in The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold:
- 50% of college students said they were less naive than the average student their age and gender, only 22% said they were more naive
- 43% claimed to be less gullible than average, only 25% said they were more gullible than average.
- 46% believed themselves to be less conforming than average, only 16% said more conforming than average.
- 74% claimed to be more independent than average, only 7% said less independent.
- 77% said they had better than average awareness of how groups manipulate people; only % said they were below average.
The book gives plenty of other examples. Smokers think they’re less likely than other smokers to get lung cancer, which keeps them smoking. Sexually active women polled believe themselves less likely to get pregnant than other sexually active girls their age. People believe they’re 32% less likely to get fired from a job than their peers.
Now the other problem is that even when people do have enough clarity to realize the truth about themselves and aren’t suffering from self-deception, if you put them on the spot, especially in front of strangers who will be judging them, will still probably lie to save face. In the 1990s for example, KFC did focus groups and surveys in their stores where they asked regular customers whether they’d try a low-calorie, low-fat, nonfried skinless chicken if it was offered. The response from customers was overwhelmingly positive. Execs took this info back to HQ and launched a healthy chicken line that was sure to be insanely popular. Only it wasn’t. It bombed horribly. What went wrong? The people didn’t tell the truth (“I don’t care about health and love me greasy fried chicken”), they instead said what they thought was the most self-flattering answer (“Yes, I would eat healthy chicken if it was offered.”). The funny thing is, a little common sense and observation of the people’s actions rather than their words would have saved them a lot of grief; basically, if these people cared so much about eating healthy, why would they be regular KFC customers to begin with?
Another example of self-serving lies to total strangers is the average Nielsen family. It’s said that Nielsen families often feel self-conscious about admitting what they really like to watch because they don’t want to look bad. So they suddenly claim to watch a whole lot of PBS and documentaries and hard news when they may really be overdosing on Tila Tequila marathons and watching I Love NY 2. They didn’t want to tell the truth and be judged, as shown in this article from today’s NY Times:
I recently completed a week as a Nielsen family, an experience that only multiplied my doubts about ratings science. My sample is biased — three friends and myself — and perhaps my circle is inordinately deceitful, but everyone I know or have met who has ever responded to a Nielsen survey has told flagrant lies about his or her viewing habits. I don’t mean small lies, such as claiming never to have seen an episode of “Three’s Company.” I mean outrageous, wholesale, novelistic fictions, which, if there were enough people in America as untrustworthy as the people I know, could skew the numbers beyond reckoning…
My friend and I stayed up late one night to fill out the pamphlet. Seldom at home long enough to watch anything, she still felt obliged to support a few names that she had heard were worthwhile — Phil Donahue, MacNeil/Lehrer, Jacques Cousteau; and, together, we pretended to have seen nearly every nature documentary and news analysis show on the air.
Having told a few stretchers, we found it easy to fabricate more elaborate untruths. We decided to be married. She inked in two well-behaved children who never saw anything but “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers.” (I know another volunteer who conceived two instant children, named after her cats. They loved anything that had a fish theme.) Rather than gorging myself on sports, as is my wont, I was put on a samurai businessman’s diet of “Face the Nation” and “Wall Street Week.” The entire family lived graciously in her studio apartment, which we expanded to five rooms with a sharp $100,000 increase in my annual income…
According to my diary, I lead an ascetic life these days, estranged from wife and children. During the third week in May, the pages indicate that I watched nothing except “Bookmark,” Lewis Lapham’s high-toned book-chat show on public television. I seem to have enjoyed the program so much, I even caught a repeat broadcast and taped it on my VCR.
In fact, my week as a Nielsen volunteer coincided with the basketball playoffs, and the television was roaring for at least three hours the night or afternoon of every game. I never saw “Bookmark” that week; and I don’t know how to record on my VCR.
As you can see many people are either deluding themselves about what they want or the kind of person they really are, or they know exactly the kind of person they are but are saying what they think is the right thing to say to look like a good person, or the problem is all of the above. This is why you have to follow what Machiavelli calls the “effective truth”: judge people by the things they do, not the self-serving things they say. Robert Greene, author of 48 Laws of Power and other books, covers this extremely well in his blog:
Judge people by the results of their actions and maneuvers, not their words. Machiavelli calls this “the effective truth,” and it is his most brilliant concept, in my opinion. It works like this: people will say almost anything to justify their actions, to give them a moral or sanctimonious veneer. The only thing that is clear, the only way we can judge people and cut away all of this crap is by looking at their actions, the results of their actions. That is their effective truth. Take the Pope, for instance. He will sermonize forever about the poor, about morality, about peace, but in the meantime he presides over the most powerful organization in the world (in Machiavelli’s time). And his actions are basically concerned with increasing this power. The effective truth is that the Pope is a political animal, and that his decisions inevitably involve maintaining the Catholic Church’s preeminent place in the world. The religious verbiage is simply a part of his political gamesmanhip, serving as a distracting device.
In other words, don’t be the whiner that complains when people’s actions don’t measure up to their words. Words, as you can see, are unreliable for a variety of reasons. People will lead you wrong with their words, sometimes deliberately and sometimes unintentionally. But actions will always show you the truth, and it’s up to you to pay more attention to people’s actions and react accordingly. Real talk.