Are lying and cheating instinctive or calculating?

To answer this question, Shaul Shalvi and his colleagues set up an experiment in which volunteers were told that they could earn ten shekels (about $2.50) for each pip of the numeral that they rolled on a die. The volunteers were asked to check the outcome of the roll, to roll the die twice more to satisfy themselves that it was not loaded, and then to report the outcome of the original roll on a computer terminal. Half the volunteers were given no time limit in which to do this, whereas the other half were given a time limit of just 20 seconds.

If the volunteers had been completely honest, the average reported roll would have been 3.5 or thereabouts. The volunteers with just 20 seconds in which to complete the task reported an average roll of 4.6, whereas the volunteers with an unlimited amount of time reported an average roll of just 3.9, an important and statistically significant difference.

Although both groups lied, the group with more time for reflection lied considerably less. This finding was confirmed by a second, similar experiment in which volunteers were asked to roll the die just once and then to report the outcome. Half the volunteers were given no time limit, whereas the other half were given a time limit of just 8 seconds. The volunteers with the 8 second time limit reported an average roll of 4.4, compared to 3.4 for the volunteers with an unlimited amount of time. Note that, in this case, the volunteers with an unlimited amount of time actually told the truth.

These findings strongly suggest that lying and cheating are more instinctive than calculating: if people are given plenty of time to think over a problem, they are far more likely to come up with an honest answer. Or as the philosopher Kierkegaard put it,

Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.

Shalvi S, Eldar O, & Bereby-Meyer Y (March 2012): Honesty requires time (and lack of justifications), Psychological Science.

Altruism has been thought of as an ego defense, a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic vocations such as medicine or teaching may be able to permanently push their needs into the background, and so never have to address or even to acknowledge them. Conversely, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress when this role is suddenly removed from them.

Altruism as an ego defence should be distinguished from true altruism—one being primarily a means to cover up uncomfortable feelings and the other being primarily a means to some external end such as alleviating hunger or poverty. However, many psychologists and philosophers have argued that there is, in fact, no such thing as true altruism. In The Dawn, the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche maintains that that which is erroneously called ‘pity’ is not selfless but variously self-motivated.

Nietzsche is in effect agreeing with Aristotle who in the Rhetoric defines pity as a feeling of pain caused by a painful or destructive evil that befalls one who does not deserve it, and that might well befall us or one of our friends, and, moreover to befall us soon. Aristotle surmises that pity cannot be felt by those with absolutely nothing to lose, nor by those who feel that they are beyond all misfortune.

In an interesting and insightful aside, Aristotle adds that a person feels pity for those who are like him and for those with whom he is acquainted, but not for those who are very closely related to him and for whom he feels as he does for himself. Indeed, says Aristotle, the pitiful should not be confounded with the terrible: a man may weep at the sight of his friend begging, but not at that of his son being led to death.

Altruistic acts are self-interested, if not because they relieve anxiety, then perhaps because they lead to pleasant feelings of pride and satisfaction; the expectation of honor or reciprocation; or the greater likelihood of a place in heaven; and even if neither of the above, then at least because they relieve unpleasant feelings such as the guilt or shame of not having acted at all.

This argument has been attacked on various grounds, but most gravely on the grounds of circularity— altruistic acts are performed for selfish reasons, therefore they must be performed for selfish reasons. The bottom line, I think, is this. There can be no such thing as an ‘altruistic’ act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or satisfaction. Therefore, an act should not be written off as selfish or self-motivated simply because it includes some inevitable element of self-interest. The act can still be counted as altruistic if the ‘selfish’ element is accidental; or, if not accidental, then secondary; or, if neither accidental nor secondary, then undetermining.

Need this imply that Aristotle is incorrect in holding that pity cannot be felt by those with absolutely nothing to lose, or who feel that they are beyond all misfortune? Not necessarily—although an altruistic act is often driven by pity, this need not be the case, and altruism and pity should not be amalgamated and then confounded with each another. Thus, it is perfectly possible for someone lying on his deathbed and at the very brink of death, who is compos mentis and whose reputation is already greatly assured, to gift all or most of his fortune to some deserving cause, not out of pity, which he may or may not be beyond feeling, but simply because he thinks that, all things considered, it is the right thing to do. In fact, this goes to the very heart of ancient virtue, which can be defined as the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion. The truly altruistic act is the virtuous act and the virtuous act is, always, the rational act.

Adapted from my new book, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception

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An important method of transforming uncomfortable or unacceptable feelings into something more manageable is ‘reaction formation’, which is the superficial adoption and exaggeration of ideas and impulses that are diametrically opposed to one’s own.

For example, a man who finds himself attracted to someone of the same sex may cope with the unacceptability of this attraction by over-acting heterosexual: going out for several beers with the boys, speaking in a gruff voice, banging his fists on the counter, whistling at pretty girls (or whatever people do these days), conspicuously engaging in a string of baseless heterosexual relationships, and so on.

Other, classic, examples of reaction formation are the alcoholic who extolls the virtues of abstinence, the rich kid who organizes anti-capitalist rallies, the absent father who occasionally returns with big gestures to spoil and smother his children, and the angry person who behaves with exaggerated calm and courtesy.

An especially interesting case of reaction formation is that of two people who matter deeply to each other, but who argue all the time to suppress their mutual desire and dependency. Typically, A accepts that B is really important to him, but B does not accept this of A; thus, B initiates arguments so as to help deny those feelings, and A initiates (or participates in) arguments so as to help cope with that denial, that is, to safeguard her ego, vent her anger, and temper her feelings.

Another, rather special, case of reaction formation is the person who hates the group but not the individual members of the group with whom he is personally acquainted; this helps to explain such phenomena as the misogynist who is devoted to his wife or the racist who marries a coloured person.

Behaviour that results from reaction formation can be recognized—or as least suspected—as such on the basis that it tends to have something of a manic edge, that is, it tends to be exaggerated, compulsive, and inflexible. More importantly, perhaps, is that the person’s behaviour does not seem to ‘add up’ in the context of his bigger picture, and may therefore appear to be groundless, irrational, or idiosyncratic. In many cases, the behaviour is also dystonic, that is, out of keeping with the person’s ideal self-image, and therefore damaging to his deep-seated goals and ambitions and—ultimately—to his sense of worth and his actual worth.

Adapted from my new book, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception

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Dulcinea del Toboso

The eponymous hero—or antihero—of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote idealizes his ‘princess’ to such an extent that it becomes comical.

To emulate the knights-errant of old who fought battles to earn the affections of their true love, Don Quixote identifies a simple peasant girl called Aldonza Lorenzo, changes her name to the much more romantic and aristocratic sounding ‘Dulcinea del Toboso,’ and then paints her in the most flattering terms possible—even though he has only ever seen her fleetingly and never spoken to her. Dulcinea barely exists, but the idea of her nonetheless keeps Don Quixote alive on his quest.

…her name is Dulcinea, her country El Toboso, a village of La Mancha, her rank must be at least that of a princess, since she is my queen and lady, and her beauty superhuman, since all the impossible and fanciful attributes of beauty which the poets apply to their ladies are verified in her; for her hairs are gold, her forehead Elysian fields, her eyebrows rainbows, her eyes suns, her cheeks roses, her lips coral, her teeth pearls, her neck alabaster, her bosom marble, her hands ivory, her fairness snow, and what modesty conceals from sight such, I think and imagine, as rational reflection can only extol, not compare.

Idealization involves overestimating the positive attributes of a person, object, or idea and underestimating the negative attributes; but more fundamentally, it involves the projection of our needs and desires onto that person, object, or idea. The classic example of idealization is that of being infatuated, when love is confused with the need to love, and the idealized person’s negative attributes are not only underestimated but turned into positive attributes and thought of as endearing. Although this can make for a rude awakening, there are few better ways of relieving our existential anxiety than by manufacturing something that is ‘perfect’ for us, be it a piece of equipment, a place, country, person, or god.

But even a god is not enough. According to the philosopher and theologian St. Augustine, man is prone to a curious feeling of dissatisfaction and to a subtle sense of longing for something undefined. This feeling of dissatisfaction arises from his fallen condition: although he has an innate potential to relate to God or the absolute, this potential can never be fully realized, and so he yearns for other things to fill its place. Yet these other things do not satisfy, and he is left with an insatiable feeling of longing—longing for something that cannot be defined.

The writer and thinker C.S. Lewis calls this feeling of longing ‘joy,’ which he describes as ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction,’ and which I like to think of—in the broadest sense—as a sort of aesthetic and creative reservoir. The paradox of ‘joy’ arises from the self-defeating nature of human desire, which might be thought of as nothing more or less than a desire for desire, a longing for longing.

In The Weight of Glory, Lewis illustrates this from the age-old quest for beauty,

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.

Adapted from my new book, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception

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Narcissistic personality disorder derives its name from the Greek myth of Narcissus, of which there are several versions.

In Ovid’s version, which is the most commonly related, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty.

As a child, Narcissus had been prophesized by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’.

One day, when Narcissus was out hunting for stags, the mountain nymph Echo followed him through the woods. She longed to speak to him but did not dare to utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, Narcissus cried out, ‘Who’s there?’ to which she replied, ‘Who’s there?’ When she finally showed herself, she rushed to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and pushed her away.

Echo spent the rest of her life grieving for Narcissus, until there was nothing left of her save for her voice.

Then, one day, Narcissus became thirsty and went to a lake. Seeing his reflection in the water, he fell in love with it, not realizing that he had fallen in love with his own reflection. However, each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear.

Narcissus grew increasingly thirsty, but would not leave or touch the water for fear of losing sight of his reflection. Eventually he died of love and thirst, and on that very spot there appeared a narcissus flower.

Narcissus pseudonarcissus, or Daffodil

The myth of Narcissus has long evaded interpretation, and what could Ovid possibly have meant by it?

Like many blind figures in classical mythology, Teiresias could ‘see’ into himself and thus find self-knowledge. This self-knowledge enabled him not only to understand himself, but also to understand other people, and so to ‘see’ into their futures.

If asked to predict someone’s future, he sometimes, reluctantly, uttered a vague prophecy. But what did he mean when he prophesized that Narcissus would ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’?

Perhaps he just meant that Narcissus would live for a long time so long as he did not fall in love with himself.

Or, more subtly, that once Narcissus ‘saw’ himself, that is, understood himself and others (including Echo’s love for him), he would be such a different person as to no longer count as his former self, and so resurrect as a flower (a plant that has flourished).

Echo too must have been looking for herself, which is why she was never anything more than an echo.

For both Echo and Narcissus, love of the world (of beauty, of the other, and, in particular, of the beautiful other) represented the means to self-knowledge, self-completion, and self-fulfilment – which is why Echo withered away after having had her love spurned by Narcissus.

By falling in love with his reflection, Narcissus not only received the punishment that he deserved for his lack of piety in the treatment of Echo, but also unwittingly exposed the love of the world as being nothing but, or the same as, self-love.

In his novel The Alchemist, Paolo Coehlo invents a continuation to the myth of Narcissus: after Narcissus died, the Goddesses of the Forest appeared and found the lake of fresh water transformed into a lake of salty tears.

‘Why do you weep?’ the Goddesses asked.
‘I weep for Narcissus,’ the lake replied.
‘Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus,’ they said, ‘for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could contemplate his beauty close at hand.’
‘But… was Narcissus beautiful?’ the lake asked.
‘Who better than you to know that?’ the Goddesses said in wonder, ‘After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!’
The lake was silent for some time. Finally it said: ‘I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.’

1. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3, Narcissus and Echo.
2. Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist, Prologue.

This blog post is adapted from my new book,
Hide and Seek, The Psychology of Self-Deception.