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Why You Can’t Trust People To Say What They Really Want

[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.

Recommended Reading:

12 Responses to “Why You Can’t Trust People To Say What They Really Want”

  1. See this post from Jezebel? I thought some of the comments were interesting …. and confused the issue.

  2. You digress in such interesting ways, but you always come back to your point.

    I’m digging your blog!

  3. The 48 Laws of Power (aside from The Bitch Rules) is the book I hand to any friends with questions about their love live and how to handle it. At the end of the day, people tell you what you want to hear, and what they think you want to hear, for their own ends. The sooner we all accept this, the better.

    Like your new home :-)

  4. TAN: That was some good reading. Thanks.

    Mayumi: Glad you like it.

    China Blue: I never heard of the Bitch Rules before. For some reason it’s not being sold in the US it seems. Kinda strange since the author (same lady who wrote Prozac Nation I believe) was a big deal over here a few years back.

  5. The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.

  6. very interesting.
    i’m adding in RSS Reader

  7. The study results remind me of some of the material from Gilbert’s book, “Stumbling On Happiness” (they may be from the same source) – the one thing we all seem to have in common is that we all think we are unusual and special and “different” from anyone else. That’s probably because (according to Gilbert) our experience of our “inner selves” has a different “flavor” than our experience of other people’s selves.

    James Boelter’s last blog post..Traditional Indian Physical Education

  8. Mr. Rawness,
    Obviously I’m late to the party, but have to compliment you on a fascinating post! Related observation: People often lie about themselves because they honestly don’t know themselves. As you and Robert Greene indicate, the last place you should go to find the truth about someone is to ask them. This makes dating even more confusing, especially if you shop online, where people create their own profiles.

    Keep up the good work!

    Related quotes from a book on evolutionary psychology:

    Much of the relevant history of our species took place before our ancestors were smart enough to ask much of anything. And even in the more recent past, after the arrival of language and self-awareness, there has been no reason for every evolved behavioral tendency to fall under conscious control. In fact, sometimes it is emphatically not in our genetic interest to be aware of exactly what we are doing and why.

    The picture of human nature painted thus far isn?t altogether flattering. We spend our lives desperately seeking status; we are addicted to social esteem in a fairly literal sense, dependent on the neurotransmitters we get upon impressing people. Many of us claim to be self-sufficient, to have a moral gyroscope, to hold fast to our values, come what may. But people truly oblivious to peer approval get labeled sociopaths. And the epithets reserved for people at the other end of the spectrum, people who seek esteem most ardently??self-promoter,? ?social climber??are only signs of our constitutional blindness. We are all self-promoters and social climbers. The people known as such are either so effective as to arouse envy or so graceless as to make their efforts obvious, or both.
    ?Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

  9. mmmmmmmmmmmmonster on February 3rd, 2009 at 9:34 PM


    Does anyone else find it funny that a blog is writing about how you need to judge people on their actions? I mean you can’t exactly trace actions on the internet…ha, good for you, writiting what people want to hear.

  10. The post is logically sound, unlike yours monster.

    I think it’s a great article, and it’s what many people DON’T want to hear about themselves, because we all do it. Many of us do it without even knowing. The irony as nicely pointed out in the article is that the ones that “save face” consider the people that are HONEST sociopaths.

    Great world we’re living in. Lies are valuable, and they might just buy you a good life if you know when to use them.

  11. What a terribly shallow analysis. I’m not saying everything you’re saying it wrong. I’m just saying you’re daft, and that statistics don’t imply causes, and statistics are no substitute for knowing the actual causes for them. Maybe I’ll tell you why when I have the energy. Or if you pay me. I limit my charitable blog posts nowadays because I’m going broke.

  12. BalsamicoBeaver on November 23rd, 2012 at 1:36 AM

    in my personal basin theres kind of a whole industry (the pua stuff you already wrote about only partially included) to get that all back into mens heads. (like the manhood101 guys and also a german-american guy from miami i know, for example, who would quite literally shout it in peoples faces when being on “industry stage” which is really fun to watch i think) people would pay quite some money at times for it. this is sad, somehow. but there ARE full time workers on that who get more than a good compensation, ironically, somewhat, for doing so, so theres quite some hope, guys.

    also very popular i think, the “ultra shallow lose your frown” thing and publically discussed aspect. thats one thing, when you become a man, tighten up and take things in your hands and everything, but this content here really is at least one level below.
    i think on the bottom of the pond, theres a knowledge about what women NEED and why! And though everything you said is totally true, i even would have heard the story that a woman would have waited in front of the toilets for like almost an hour at the octoberfest (i am from the city nearby that actually invented beer ;)no joke) and i mean…if you hear this, ok, but be aware the next lady probably will interrupt the mating process with a quick trip to the moon, go bananas at the backside of it, maybe holla a qick one at the residing space nazis and then simply starve. then it is NOT your fault, lol. you did all you could ;)