Favorite Stories About Fibs and Fake News, and 70+ Other Types of Deceit

Lies 24/7. It's hard to keep up with the unending tsunami of falsehoods that greets us each and every day. And, that's just the lies coming from our family and friends. The bigger lies aimed at our communities often make the local and national news, usually under the guise of fact and truth. Without a full-time staff of hundreds of investigative journalists and "lientists" it's impossible for us to catalog every one of these newsworthy alternative facts. However, here we (try to) catalog our favorite fabrications, fake news and "evidence-free" facts.

The Macedonian Fake News Factory

The Macedonian Fake News Factory

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Veles is a small city of around 50,000 located in the central hills of the Republic of Macedonia. Until recently the city laid claim to being the second most polluted region in the ex-Yugoslavia. Once home to a famed ceramic factory, Veles is now host to a different type of manufacturer, one that fabricates fake news. In 2016, Veles hit the headlines following the discovery that a small group of teenagers was behind over 100 websites supporting U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump and filled with sensational rumor and completely fake news. Through active promotion on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the sites raked in significant revenues for their young founders. Importantly, these fake news sites, and others, may have also influenced the result of the U.S. election.

I urge you to read more about this fascinating and unnerving story over at Wired.

From Wired:

The first article about Donald Trump that Boris ever published described how, during a campaign rally in North Carolina, the candidate slapped a man in the audience for disagreeing with him. This never happened, of course. Boris had found the article somewhere online, and he needed to feed his web­site, Daily Interesting Things, so he appropriated the text, down to its last mis­begotten comma. He posted the link on Facebook, seeding it within various groups devoted to American politics; to his astonish­ment, it was shared around 800 times. That month—February 2016—Boris made more than $150 off the Google ads on his website. Considering this to be the best possible use of his time, he stopped going to high school.

Image courtesy of: Македонец at Macedonian Wikipedia.

Fake News: Who’s Too Blame?

Fake News: Who’s Too Blame?

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Should we blame the creative originators of fake news, conspiracy theories, disinformation and click-bait hype? Or, should we blame the media for disseminating, spinning and aggrandizing these stories for their own profit or political motives? Or, should we blame us — the witless consumers.

I subscribe to the opinion that all three constituencies share responsibility — it’s very much a symbiotic relationship.

James Warren chief media writer for Poynter has a different opinion; he lays the blame squarely at the feet of gullible and unquestioning citizens. He makes a very compelling argument.

Perhaps if any educated political scholars remain several hundred years from now, they’ll hold the US presidential election of 2016 as the culmination of a process where lazy stupidity triumphed over healthy skepticism and reason.

From Hive:

The rise of “fake news” inspires the press to uncover its many practitioners worldwide, discern its economics and herald the alleged guilt-ridden soul-searching by its greatest enablers, Facebook and Google.

But the media dances around another reality with the dexterity of Beyonce, Usher and septuagenarian Mick Jagger: the stupidity of a growing number of Americans.

So thanks to Neal Gabler for taking to Bill Moyers’ website to pen, “Who’s Really to Blame for Fake News.” (Moyers)

Fake news, of course, “is an assault on the very principle of truth itself: a way to upend the reference points by which mankind has long operated. You could say, without exaggeration, that fake news is actually an attempt to reverse the Enlightenment. And because a democracy relies on truth — which is why dystopian writers have always described how future oligarchs need to undermine it — fake news is an assault on democracy as well.”

Gabler is identified here as the author of five books, without mentioning any. Well, one is 1995’s Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. It’s a superb look at Walter Winchell, the man who really invented the gossip column and wound up with a readership and radio audience of 50 million, or two-thirds of the then-population, as he helped create our modern media world of privacy-invading gossip and personal destruction as entertainment.

“What is truly horrifying is that fake news is not the manipulation of an unsuspecting public,” Gabler writes of our current mess. “Quite the opposite. It is willful belief by the public. In effect, the American people are accessories in their own disinformation campaign. That is our current situation, and it is no sure thing that either truth or democracy survives.”

Think of it. The goofy stories, the lies, the conspiracy theories that now routinely gain credibility among millions who can’t be bothered to read a newspaper or decent digital site and can’t differentiate between Breitbart and The New York Times. Ask all those pissed-off Trump loyalists in rural towns to name their two U.S. senators.

We love convincing ourselves of the strengths of democracy, including the inevitable collective wisdom setting us back on a right track if ever we go astray. And while the media may hold itself out as cultural anthropologists in explaining the “anger” or “frustration” of “real people,” as is the case after Donald Trump’s election victory, we won’t really underscore rampant illiteracy and incomprehension.

So read Gabler. “Above all else, fake news is a lazy person’s news. It provides passive entertainment, demanding nothing of us. And that is a major reason we now have a fake news president.”

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Artist’s conception of an alien spacecraft tractor-beaming a human victim. Courtesy: unknown artist, Wikipedia. Public Domain.

The Existential Dangers of the Online Echo Chamber

The Existential Dangers of the Online Echo Chamber

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The online filter bubble is a natural extension of our preexisting biases, particularly evident in our media consumption. Those of us of a certain age — above 30 years — once purchased (and maybe still do) our favorite paper-based newspapers and glued ourselves to our favorite TV news channels. These sources mirrored, for the most part, our cultural and political preferences. The internet took this a step further by building a tightly wound, self-reinforcing feedback loop. We consume our favorite online media, which solicits algorithms to deliver more of the same. I’ve written about the filter bubble for years (here, here and here).

The online filter bubble in which each of us lives — those of us online — may seem no more dangerous than its offline predecessor. After all, the online version of the NYT delivers left-of-center news, just like its printed cousin. So what’s the big deal? Well, the pervasiveness of our technology has now enabled these filters to creep insidiously into many aspects of our lives, from news consumption and entertainment programming to shopping and even dating. And, since we now spend growing  swathes of our time online, our serendipitous exposure to varied content that typically lies outside this bubble in the real, offline world is diminishing. Consequently, the online filter bubble is taking on a much more critical role and having greater effect in maintaining our tunnel vision.

However, that’s not all. Over the last few years we have become exposed to yet another dangerous phenomenon to have made the jump from the offline world to online — the echo chamber. The online echo chamber is enabled by our like-minded online communities and catalyzed by the tools of social media. And, it turns our filter bubble into a self-reinforcing, exclusionary community that is harmful to varied, reasoned opinion and healthy skepticism.

Those of us who reside on Facebook are likely to be part of a very homogeneous social circle, which trusts, shares and reinforces information accepted by the group and discards information that does not match the group’s social norms. This makes the spread of misinformation — fake stories, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, rumors — so very effective. Importantly, this is increasingly to the exclusion of all else, including real news and accepted scientific fact.

Why embrace objective journalism, trusted science and thoughtful political dialogue when you can get a juicy, emotive meme from a friend of a friend on Facebook? Why trust a story from Reuters or science from Scientific American when you get your “news” via a friend’s link from Alex Jones and the Brietbart News Network?

And, there’s no simple solution, which puts many of our once trusted institutions in severe jeopardy. Those of us who care have a duty to ensure these issues are in the minds of our public officials and the guardians of our technology and media networks.

From Scientific American:

If you get your news from social media, as most Americans do, you are exposed to a daily dose of hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and misleading news. When it’s all mixed in with reliable information from honest sources, the truth can be very hard to discern.

In fact, my research team’s analysis of data from Columbia University’s Emergent rumor tracker suggests that this misinformation is just as likely to go viral as reliable information.

Many are asking whether this onslaught of digital misinformation affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. The truth is we do not know, although there are reasons to believe it is entirely possible, based on past analysis and accounts from other countries. Each piece of misinformation contributes to the shaping of our opinions. Overall, the harm can be very real: If people can be conned into jeopardizing our children’s lives, as they do when they opt out of immunizations, why not our democracy?

As a researcher on the spread of misinformation through social media, I know that limiting news fakers’ ability to sell ads, as recently announced by Google and Facebook, is a step in the right direction. But it will not curb abuses driven by political motives.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

The Conspiracy of Disbelief

The Conspiracy of Disbelief

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Faux news and hoaxes are a staple of our culture. I suspect that disinformation, fabrications and lies have been around since our ancestors first learned to walk on their hind legs. Researchers know that lying provides a critical personal and social function; white lies help hide discomfort and often strengthen support with partners and peers. Broader and deeper lies are often used to build and maintain power and project strength over others. Indeed, some nations rise and fall based on the quality of their falsehoods and propaganda.

The rise of the internet and social media over the last couple of decades has amplified the issue to such an extent that it becomes ever more challenging to decipher fact from fiction. Indeed entire highly profitable industries are built on feeding misinformation and disseminating hoaxes. But while many of us laugh at and dismiss the front page headlines of the National Enquirer proclaiming “aliens abducted my neighbor“, other forms of fiction are much more sinister. One example is the Sandy Hook mass shooting, where a significant number of paranoid and skeptical conspiracy theorists continue to maintain to this day — almost 4 years on — that the massacre of 20 elementary school children and 6 adults was and is a well-fabricated hoax.

From NY Magazine:

On December 14, 2012, Lenny Pozner dropped off his three children, Sophia, Arielle, and Noah, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Noah had recently turned 6, and on the drive over they listened to his favorite song, “Gangnam Style,” for what turned out to be the last time. Half an hour later, while Sophia and Arielle hid nearby, Adam Lanza walked into Noah’s first-grade class with an AR-15 rifle. Noah was the youngest of the 20 children and seven adults killed in one of the deadliest shootings in American history. When the medical examiner found Noah lying face up in a Batman sweatshirt, his jaw had been blown off. Lenny and his wife, Veronique, raced to the school as soon as they heard the news, but had to wait for hours alongside other parents to learn their son’s fate.

It didn’t take much longer for Pozner to find out that many people didn’t believe his son had died or even that he had lived at all. Days after the rampage, a man walked around Newtown filming a video in which he declared that the massacre had been staged by “some sort of New World Order global elitists” intent on taking away our guns and our liberty. A week later, James Tracy, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, wrote a blog post expressing doubts about the massacre. By January, a 30-minute YouTube video, titled “The Sandy Hook Shooting — Fully Exposed,” which asked questions like “Wouldn’t frantic kids be a difficult target to hit?,” had been viewed more than 10 million times.

As the families grieved, conspiracy theorists began to press their case in ways that Newtown couldn’t avoid. State officials received anonymous phone calls at their homes, late at night, demanding answers: Why were there no trauma helicopters? What happened to the initial reports of a second shooter? A Virginia man stole playground signs memorializing two of the victims, then called their parents to say that the burglary shouldn’t affect them, since their children had never existed. At one point, Lenny Pozner was checking into a hotel out of town when the clerk looked up from the address on his driver’s license and said, “Oh, Sandy Hook — the government did that.” Pozner had tried his best to ignore the conspiracies, but eventually they disrupted his grieving process so much that he could no longer turn a blind eye. “Conspiracy theorists erase the human aspect of history,” Pozner said this summer. “My child — who lived, who was a real person — is basically going to be erased.”

Read the entire disturbing story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Clicks or Truth

Clicks or Truth

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The internet is a tremendous resource for learning, entertainment and communication. It’s also a vast, accreting blob of misinformation, lies, rumor, exaggeration and just plain bulls**t.

So, is there any hope for those of us who care about fact and truth over truthiness? Well, the process of combating conspiracies and mythology is likely to remain a difficult and continuous one for the foreseeable future.

But, there are small pockets on the internet where the important daily fight against disinformation thrives. As managing editor Brooke Binkowski at the fact-checking site Snopes.com puts it, “In cases where clickability and virality trump fact, we feel that knowledge is the best antidote to fear.”

From Washington Post:

In a famous xkcd cartoon, “Duty Calls,” a man’s partner beckons him to bed as he sits alone at his computer. “I can’t. This is important,” he demurs, pecking furiously at the keyboard. “What?” comes the reply. His answer: “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

His nighttime frustration is my day job. I work at Snopes.com, the fact-checking site pledged to running down rumors, debunking cant and calling out liars. Just this past week, for instance, we wrestled with a mysterious lump on Hillary Clinton’s back that turned out to be a mic pack (not the defibrillator some had alleged). It’s a noble and worthwhile calling, but it’s also a Sisyphean one. On the Internet, no matter how many facts you marshal, someone is always wrong.

Every day, the battle against error begins with email. At Snopes, which is supported entirely by advertising, our staff of about a dozen writers and editors plows through some 1,000 messages that have accumulated overnight, which helps us get a feel for what our readers want to know about this morning. Unfortunately, it also means a healthy helping of venom, racism and fury. A Boston-based email specialist on staff helps sort the wheat (real questions we could answer) from the vituperative chaff.

Out in the physical world (where we rarely get to venture during the election season, unless it’s to investigate yet another rumor about Pokémon Go), our interactions with the site’s readers are always positive. But in the virtual world, anonymous communication emboldens the disaffected to treat us as if we were agents of whatever they’re perturbed by today. The writers of these missives, who often send the same message over and over, think they’re on to us: We’re shills for big government, big pharma, the Department of Defense or any number of other prominent, arguably shadowy organizations. You have lost all credibility! they tell us. They never consider that the actual truth is what’s on our website — that we’re completely independent.

Read the entire article here.

If it Disagrees With Experiment it is Wrong

If it Disagrees With Experiment it is Wrong

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This post’s title belongs to the great physicist and bongo player Richard Feynman. It brings into sharp relief one of the many challenges in our current fractured political discourse — that objective fact is a political tool and scientific denialism is now worn as a badge of honor by many politicians (mostly on the right).

Climate science is a great example of the chasm between rational debate and established facts on the one hand and anti-science, conspiracy mythologists [I’m still searching for a better word] on the other. Some climate deniers simply wave away evidence as nothing but regular weather. Others pronounce that climate change is a plot by the Chinese.

I firmly believe in the scientific method and objective fact; the progress we have witnessed over the last 150 or so years due to science and scientists alone is spectacular. Long may it continue. Yet as Scientific American tells us we need to be alarmed and remain vigilant — it wouldn’t take much effort to return to the Dark Ages.

From Scientific American:

Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. “By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation’s founders,” Otto wrote, “the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.

Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: “It warn’t so. I tried it.” A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country’s particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation’s grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

Read the article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Early Adopters of Inconvenient Truths

Early Adopters of Inconvenient Truths

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Conspiracy theorists are a small but vocal and influential minority. Their views span the gamut of conspiracy theories: holocaust denial, President Kennedy’s assassination, UFOs, extraterrestrials, Flat Earth, alternate technology suppression, climate change, to name just a handful.

The United States is after all host to a candidate for the Presidency who subscribes to a number of conspiratorial theories, and, importantly, there’s even a dating app — Awake Dating — for like-minded conspiracy theorists. Though, the site’s COO Jarrod Fidden prefers to label his members “early adopter[s] of inconvenient truths” over the term “conspiracy theorist”, which, let’s face it, is often used pejoratively.

So, perhaps it serves to delve a little deeper into why some nonsensical and scientifically disproved ideas persist in 2016.

Briefly, it seems that zombie ideas thrive for a couple of key reasons: first, they may confer some level of group identity, attention and/or influence; second, they provide a degree of simplistic comfort to counter often highly complex scientific explanations. Moreover, conspiracy theories do have a generally positive cultural effect — some bring laughter to our days, but most tend to drive serious debate and further research in the quest for true (scientific) consensus.

From the Guardian:

In January 2016, the rapper BoB took to Twitter to tell his fans that the Earth is really flat. “A lot of people are turned off by the phrase ‘flat earth’,” he acknowledged, “but there’s no way u can see all the evidence and not know … grow up.” At length the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joined in the conversation, offering friendly corrections to BoB’s zany proofs of non-globism, and finishing with a sarcastic compliment: “Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.”

Actually, it’s a lot more than five centuries regressed. Contrary to what we often hear, people didn’t think the Earth was flat right up until Columbus sailed to the Americas. In ancient Greece, the philosophers Pythagoras and Parmenides had already recognised that the Earth was spherical. Aristotle pointed out that you could see some stars in Egypt and Cyprus that were not visible at more northerly latitudes, and also that the Earth casts a curved shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. The Earth, he concluded with impeccable logic, must be round.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Azimuthal equidistant projection, used by some Flat Earthers as evidence for a flat Earth. Courtesy: Strebe / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Dishonesty and Intelligence

Dishonesty and Intelligence

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Another day, another survey. This time it’s one that links honesty and intelligence. Apparently, the more intelligent you are — as measured by a quick intelligence test — the less likely you’ll be to lie. Fascinatingly, the survey also shows that those who do lie from the small subgroup of the most intelligent tell smaller whoppers; people in the less intelligent subgroup tell bigger lies, for a bigger payoff.

From Washington Post:

Last summer, a couple of researchers ran a funny experiment about honesty. They went to an Israeli shopping mall and recruited people, one-by-one, into a private booth. Alone inside the booth, each subject rolled a six-sided die. Then they stepped out and reported the number that came up.

There was an incentive to lie. The higher the number, the more money people received. If they rolled a one, they got a bonus of about $2.50. If they rolled a two, they got a bonus of $5, and so on. If they rolled a six, the bonus was about $15. (Everyone also received $5 just for participating.)

Before I reveal the results, think about what you would do in that situation. Someone comes up to you at the mall and offers you free money to roll a die. If you wanted to make a few extra bucks, you could lie about what you rolled. Nobody would know, and nobody would be harmed.

Imagine you went into that booth and rolled a 1. What would you do? Would you be dishonest? Would you say you rolled a six, just to get the largest payout?

The researchers, Bradley Ruffle of Wilfrid Laurier University and Yossef Tobol, of the Jerusalem College of Technology, wanted to know what kinds of people would lie in this situation. So they asked everyone about their backgrounds, whether they considered themselves honest, whether they thought honesty was important. They asked whether people were employed, how much money they earned, and whether they were religious. They also gave people a quick intelligence test.

Out of all those attributes, brainpower stood out. Smarter people were less likely to lie about the number they rolled.

It didn’t matter whether they claimed they were honest or not; it didn’t matter whether they were religious, whether they were male or female, or whether they lived in a city. Money didn’t seem to be a factor either. Even after controlling for incomes, the researchers found that the most honest people were the ones who scored highest on the intelligence test.

Read the entire article here.

Lies By Any Other Name

Lies By Any Other Name

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Lies_and_the_lying_liarsCertain gestures and facial movements are usually good indicators of a lie in progress. If your boss averts her eyes when she tells you “what a good employee you are”, or if your spouse looks at his finger nails when telling you “how gorgeous your new dress looks”, you can be almost certain that you are being told some half-truths or mistruths. Psychologists have studied these visual indicators for as long as humans have told lies.

Since dishonesty is so widespread and well-studied it comes as no surprise that there are verbal cues as well — just as telling as sweaty palms. A well-used verbal clue to insincerity, ironically, is the phrase “to be honest“. Verbal tee-ups such as this are known by behavioral scientists as qualifiers or performatives. There is a growing list.

From the WSJ:

A friend of mine recently started a conversation with these words: “Don’t take this the wrong way…”

I wish I could tell you what she said next. But I wasn’t listening—my brain had stalled. I was bracing for the sentence that would follow that phrase, which experience has taught me probably wouldn’t be good.

Certain phrases just seem to creep into our daily speech. We hear them a few times and suddenly we find ourselves using them. We like the way they sound, and we may find they are useful. They may make it easier to say something difficult or buy us a few extra seconds to collect our next thought.

Yet for the listener, these phrases are confusing. They make it fairly impossible to understand, or even accurately hear, what the speaker is trying to say.

Consider: “I want you to know…” or “I’m just saying…” or “I hate to be the one to tell you this…” Often, these phrases imply the opposite of what the words mean, as with the phrase, “I’m not saying…” as in “I’m not saying we have to stop seeing each other, but…”

Take this sentence: “I want to say that your new haircut looks fabulous.” In one sense, it’s true: The speaker does wish to tell you that your hair looks great. But does he or she really think it is so or just want to say it? It’s unclear.

Language experts have textbook names for these phrases—”performatives,” or “qualifiers.” Essentially, taken alone, they express a simple thought, such as “I am writing to say…” At first, they seem harmless, formal, maybe even polite. But coming before another statement, they often signal that bad news, or even some dishonesty on the part of the speaker, will follow.

“Politeness is another word for deception,” says James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department of the University of Texas at Austin, who studies these phrases. “The point is to formalize social relations so you don’t have to reveal your true self.”

In other words, “if you’re going to lie, it’s a good way to do it—because you’re not really lying. So it softens the blow,” Dr. Pennebaker says.

Of course, it’s generally best not to lie, Dr. Pennebaker notes. But because these sayings so frequently signal untruth, they can be confusing even when used in a neutral context. No wonder they often lead to a breakdown in personal communications.

Some people refer to these phrases as “tee-ups.” That is fitting. What do you do with a golf ball? You put it on a peg at the tee—tee it up—and then give it a giant wallop.

Betsy Schow says she felt like she was “hit in the stomach by a cannonball” the day she was preparing to teach one of her first yoga classes. A good friend—one she’d assumed had shown up to support her—approached her while she was warming up. She was in the downward facing dog pose when she heard her friend say, “I am only telling you this because I love you…”

The friend pointed out that lumps were showing beneath Ms. Schow’s yoga clothes and said people laughed at her behind her back because they thought she wasn’t fit enough to teach yoga. Ms. Schow had recently lost a lot of weight and written a book about it. She says the woman also mentioned that Ms. Schow’s friends felt she was “acting better than they were.” Then the woman offered up the name of a doctor who specializes in liposuction. “Hearing that made me feel sick,” says Ms. Schow, a 32-year-old fitness consultant in Alpine, Utah. “Later, I realized that her ‘help’ was no help at all.”

Tee-ups have probably been around as long as language, experts say. They seem to be used with equal frequency by men and women, although there aren’t major studies of the issue. Their use may be increasing as a result of social media, where people use phrases such as “I am thinking that…” or “As far as I know…” both to avoid committing to a definitive position and to manage the impression they make in print.

“Awareness about image management is increased any time people put things into print, such as in email or on social networks,” says Jessica Moore, department chair and assistant professor at the College of Communication at Butler University, Indianapolis. “Thus people often make caveats to their statements that function as a substitute for vocalized hedges.” And people do this hedging—whether in writing or in speech—largely unconsciously, Dr. Pennebaker says. “We are emotionally distancing ourselves from our statement, without even knowing it,” he says.

So, if tee-ups are damaging our relationships, yet we often don’t even know we’re using them, what can we do? Start by trying to be more aware of what you are saying. Tee-ups should serve as yellow lights. If you are about to utter one, slow down. Proceed with caution. Think about what you are about to say.

“If you are feeling a need to use them a lot, then perhaps you should consider the possibility that you are saying too many unpleasant things to or about other people,” says Ellen Jovin, co-founder of Syntaxis, a communication-skills training firm in New York. She considers some tee-up phrases to be worse than others. “Don’t take this the wrong way…” is “ungracious,” she says. “It is a doomed attempt to evade the consequences of a comment.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, book cover, by Al Franken. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Benefits of Self-Deception

The Benefits of Self-Deception

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Psychologists have long studied the causes and characteristics of deception. In recent times they have had a huge pool of talented liars from which to draw — bankers, mortgage lenders, Enron executives, borrowers, and of course politicians. Now, researchers have begun to took at the art of self-deception, with some interesting results. Self-deception may be a useful tool in influencing others.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Lying to yourself—or self-deception, as psychologists call it—can actually have benefits. And nearly everybody does it, based on a growing body of research using new experimental techniques.

Self-deception isn’t just lying or faking, but is deeper and more complicated, says Del Paulhus, psychology professor at University of British Columbia and author of a widely used scale to measure self-deceptive tendencies. It involves strong psychological forces that keep us from acknowledging a threatening truth about ourselves, he says.

Believing we are more talented or intelligent than we really are can help us influence and win over others, says Robert Trivers, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University and author of “The Folly of Fools,” a 2011 book on the subject. An executive who talks himself into believing he is a great public speaker may not only feel better as he performs, but increase “how much he fools people, by having a confident style that persuades them that he’s good,” he says.

Researchers haven’t studied large population samples to compare rates of self-deception or compared men and women, but they know based on smaller studies that it is very common. And scientists in many different disciplines are drawn to studying it, says Michael I. Norton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. “It’s also one of the most puzzling things that humans do.”

Researchers disagree over what exactly happens in the brain during self-deception. Social psychologists say people deceive themselves in an unconscious effort to boost self-esteem or feel better. Evolutionary psychologists, who say different parts of the brain can harbor conflicting beliefs at the same time, say self-deception is a way of fooling others to our own advantage.

In some people, the tendency seems to be an inborn personality trait. Others may develop a habit of self-deception as a way of coping with problems and challenges.

Behavioral scientists in recent years have begun using new techniques in the laboratory to predict when and why people are likely to deceive themselves. For example, they may give subjects opportunities to inflate their own attractiveness, skill or intelligence. Then, they manipulate such variables as subjects’ mood, promises of rewards or opportunities to cheat. They measure how the prevalence of self-deception changes.

Read the entire article after the jump.

mage: Truth or Consequences. Courtesy of CBS 1950-51 / Wikia.

Sign First — Lie Less

Sign First — Lie Less

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A recent paper filed with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows that we are more likely to be honest if we sign a form before, rather than after, completing it. So, over the coming years look out for Uncle Sam to revise the ubiquitous IRS 1040 form by adding a signature line at the top rather than the bottom of the last page.

From Ars Technica:

What’s the purpose of signing a form? On the simplest level, a signature is simply a way to make someone legally responsible for the content of the form. But in addition to the legal aspect, the signature is an appeal to personal integrity, forcing people to consider whether they’re comfortable attaching their identity to something that may not be completely true.

Based on some figures in a new PNAS paper, the signatures on most forms are miserable failures, at least from the latter perspective. The IRS estimates that it misses out on about $175 billion because people misrepresent their income or deductions. And the insurance industry calculates that it loses about $80 billion annually due to fraudulent claims. But the same paper suggests a fix that is as simple as tweaking the form. Forcing people to sign before they complete the form greatly increases their honesty.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that signing at the end of a form does not promote accurate reporting, given what we know about human psychology. “Immediately after lying,” the paper’s authors write, “individuals quickly engage in various mental justifications, reinterpretations, and other ‘tricks’ such as suppressing thoughts about their moral standards that allow them to maintain a positive self-image despite having lied.” By the time they get to the actual request for a signature, they’ve already made their peace with lying: “When signing comes after reporting, the morality train has already left the station.”

The problem isn’t with the signature itself. Lots of studies have shown that focusing the attention on one’s self, which a signature does successfully, can cause people to behave more ethically. The problem comes from its placement after the lying has already happened. So, the authors posited a quick fix: stick the signature at the start. Their hypothesis was that “signing one’s name before reporting information (rather than at the end) makes morality accessible right before it is most needed, which will consequently promote honest reporting.”

To test this proposal, they designed a series of forms that required self reporting of personal information, either involving performance on a math quiz where higher scores meant higher rewards, or the reimbursable travel expenses involved in getting to the study’s location. The only difference among the forms? Some did not ask for a signature, some put the signature on top, and some placed it in its traditional location, at the end.

In the case of the math quiz, the researchers actually tracked how well the participants had performed. With the signature at the end, a full 79 percent of the participants cheated. Somewhat fewer cheated when no signature was required, though the difference was not statistically significant. But when the signature was required on top, only 37 percent cheated—less than half the rate seen in the signature-at-bottom group. A similar pattern was seen when the authors analyzed the extent of the cheating involved.

Although they didn’t have complete information on travel expenses, the same pattern prevailed: people who were given the signature-on-top form reported fewer expenses than either of the other two groups.

The authors then repeated this experiment, but added a word completion task, where participants were given a series of blanks, some filled in with letters, and asked to complete the word. These completion tasks were set up so that they could be answered with neutral words or with those associated with personal ethics, like “virtue.” They got the same results as in the earlier tests of cheating, and the word completion task showed that the people who had signed on top were more likely to fill in the blanks to form ethics-focused words. This supported the contention that the early signature put people in an ethical state of mind prior to completion of the form.

But the really impressive part of the study came from its real-world demonstration of this effect. The authors got an unnamed auto insurance company to send out two versions of its annual renewal forms to over 13,000 policy holders, identical except for the location of the signature. One part of this form included a request for odometer readings, which the insurance companies use to calculate typical miles travelled, which are proportional to accident risk. These are used to calculate insurance cost—the more you drive, the more expensive it is.

Those who signed at the top reported nearly 2,500 miles more than the ones who signed at the end.

Read the entire article after the jump, or follow the article at PNAS, here.

Image courtesy of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Truthiness 101

Truthiness 101

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Strangely and ironically it takes a satirist to tell the truth, and of course, academics now study the phenomenon.

From Washington Post:

Nation, our so-called universities are in big trouble, and not just because attending one of them leaves you with more debt than the Greek government. No, we’re talking about something even more unsettling: the academic world’s obsession with Stephen Colbert.

Last we checked, Colbert was a mere TV comedian, or a satirist if you want to get fancy about it. (And, of course, being college professors, they do.) He’s a TV star, like Donald Trump, only less of a caricature.

Yet ever since Colbert’s show, “The Colbert Report,” began airing on Comedy Central in 2005, these ivory-tower eggheads have been devoting themselves to studying all things Colbertian. They’ve sliced and diced his comic stylings more ways than a Ginsu knife. Every academic discipline — well, among the liberal arts, at least — seems to want a piece of him. Political science. Journalism. Philosophy. Race relations. Communications studies. Theology. Linguistics. Rhetoric.

There are dozens of scholarly articles, monographs, treatises and essays about Colbert, as well as books of scholarly articles, monographs and essays. A University of Oklahoma student even earned her doctorate last year by examining him and his “Daily Show” running mate Jon Stewart. It was called “Political Humor and Third-Person Perception.”

The academic cult of Colbert (or is it “the cul of Colbert”?) is everywhere. Here’s a small sample. Jim .?.?.“Is Stephen Colbert America’s Socrates?,” chapter heading in “Stephen Colbert and Philosophy: I Am Philosophy (And So Can You!),” published by Open Court, 2009.

“The Wørd Made Fresh: A Theological Exploration of Stephen Colbert,” published in Concepts (“an interdisciplinary journal of graduate studies”), Villanova University, 2010.

“It’s All About Meme: The Art of the Interview and the Insatiable Ego of the Colbert Bump,” chapter heading in “The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News,” published by McFarland Press, 2011.

“The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report,” a 2009 study in the International Journal of Press/Politics that its authors described as an investigation of “biased message processing” and “the influence of political ideology on perceptions of Stephen Colbert.” After much study, the authors found “no significant difference between [conservatives and liberals] in thinking Colbert was funny.”

Colbert-ism has insinuated itself into the undergraduate curriculum, too.

Boston University has offered a seminar called “The Colbert Report: American Satire” for the past two years, which explores Colbert’s use of “syllogism, logical fallacy, burlesque, and travesty,” as lecturer Michael Rodriguez described it on the school’s Web site.

This fall, Towson University will roll out a freshman seminar on politics and popular culture, with Colbert as its focus.

All this for a guy who would undoubtedly mock-celebrate the serious study of himself.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Colbert Report. Wikipedia / Comedy Central.

Faux Fashion is More Than Skin-Deep

Faux Fashion is More Than Skin-Deep

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Some innovative research shows that we are generally more inclined to cheat others if we are clad in counterfeit designer clothing or carrying faux accessories.

From Scientific American:

Let me tell you the story of my debut into the world of fashion. When Jennifer Wideman Green (a friend of mine from graduate school) ended up living in New York City, she met a number of people in the fashion industry. Through her I met Freeda Fawal-Farah, who worked for Harper’s Bazaar. A few months later Freeda invited me to give a talk at the magazine, and because it was such an atypical crowd for me, I agreed.

I found myself on a stage before an auditorium full of fashion mavens. Each woman was like an exhibit in a museum: her jewelry, her makeup, and, of course, her stunning shoes. I talked about how people make decisions, how we compare prices when we are trying to figure out how much something is worth, how we compare ourselves to others, and so on. They laughed when I hoped they would, asked thoughtful questions, and offered plenty of their own interesting ideas. When I finished the talk, Valerie Salembier, the publisher of Harper’s Bazaar, came onstage, hugged and thanked me—and gave me a stylish black Prada overnight bag.

I headed downtown to my next meeting. I had some time to kill, so I decided to take a walk. As I wandered, I couldn’t help thinking about my big black leather bag with its large Prada logo. I debated with myself: should I carry my new bag with the logo facing outward? That way, other people could see and admire it (or maybe just wonder how someone wearing jeans and red sneakers could possibly have procured it). Or should I carry it with the logo facing toward me, so that no one could recognize that it was a Prada? I decided on the latter and turned the bag around.

Even though I was pretty sure that with the logo hidden no one realized it was a Prada bag, and despite the fact that I don’t think of myself as someone who cares about fashion, something felt different to me. I was continuously aware of the brand on the bag. I was wearing Prada! And it made me feel different; I stood a little straighter and walked with a bit more swagger. I wondered what would happen if I wore Ferrari underwear. Would I feel more invigorated? More confident? More agile? Faster?

I continued walking and passed through Chinatown, which was bustling with activity. Not far away, I spotted an attractive young couple in their twenties taking in the scene. A Chinese man approached them. “Handbags, handbags!” he called, tilting his head to indicate the direction of his small shop. After a moment or two, the woman asked the Chinese man, “You have Prada?”

The vendor nodded. I watched as she conferred with her partner. He smiled at her, and they followed the man to his stand.

The Prada they were referring to, of course, was not actually Prada. Nor were the $5 “designer” sunglasses on display in his stand really Dolce&Gabbana. And the Armani perfumes displayed over by the street food stands? Fakes too.

From Ermine to Armani

Going back a way, ancient Roman law included a set of regulations called sumptuary laws, which filtered down through the centuries into the laws of nearly all European nations. Among other things, the laws dictated who could wear what, according to their station and class. For example, in Renaissance England, only the nobility could wear certain kinds of fur, fabrics, laces, decorative beading per square foot, and so on, while those in the gentry could wear decisively less appealing clothing. (The poorest were generally excluded from the law, as there was little point in regulating musty burlap, wool, and hair shirts.) People who “dressed above their station” were silently, but directly, lying to those around them. And those who broke the law were often hit with fines and other punishments.

What may seem to be an absurd degree of obsessive compulsion on the part of the upper crust was in reality an effort to ensure that people were what they signaled themselves to be; the system was designed to eliminate disorder and confusion. Although our current sartorial class system is not as rigid as it was in the past, the desire to signal success and individuality is as strong today as ever.

When thinking about my experience with the Prada bag, I wondered whether there were other psychological forces related to fakes that go beyond external signaling. There I was in Chinatown holding my real Prada bag, watching the woman emerge from the shop holding her fake one. Despite the fact that I had neither picked out nor paid for mine, it felt to me that there was a substantial difference between the way I related to my bag and the way she related to hers.

More generally, I started wondering about the relationship between what we wear and how we behave, and it made me think about a concept that social scientists call self-signaling. The basic idea behind self-signaling is that despite what we tend to think, we don’t have a very clear notion of who we are. We generally believe that we have a privileged view of our own preferences and character, but in reality we don’t know ourselves that well (and definitely not as well as we think we do). Instead, we observe ourselves in the same way we observe and judge the actions of other people— inferring who we are and what we like from our actions.

For example, imagine that you see a beggar on the street. Rather than ignoring him or giving him money, you decide to buy him a sandwich. The action in itself does not define who you are, your morality, or your character, but you interpret the deed as evidence of your compassionate and charitable character. Now, armed with this “new” information, you start believing more intensely in your own benevolence. That’s self-signaling at work.

The same principle could also apply to fashion accessories. Carrying a real Prada bag—even if no one else knows it is real—could make us think and act a little differently than if we were carrying a counterfeit one. Which brings us to the questions: Does wearing counterfeit products somehow make us feel less legitimate? Is it possible that accessorizing with fakes might affect us in unexpected and negative ways?

Calling All Chloés

I decided to call Freeda and tell her about my recent interest in high fashion. During our conversation, Freeda promised to convince a fashion designer to lend me some items to use in some experiments. A few weeks later, I received a package from the Chloé label containing twenty handbags and twenty pairs of sunglasses. The statement accompanying the package told me that the handbags were estimated to be worth around $40,000 and the sunglasses around $7,000. (The rumor about this shipment quickly traveled around Duke, and I became popular among the fashion-minded crowd.)

With those hot commodities in hand, Francesca Gino, Mike Norton (both professors at Harvard University), and I set about testing whether participants who wore fake products would feel and behave differently from those wearing authentic ones. If our participants felt that wearing fakes would broadcast (even to themselves) a less honorable self-image, we wondered whether they might start thinking of themselves as somewhat less honest. And with this tainted self-concept in mind, would they be more likely to continue down the road of dishonesty?

Using the lure of Chloé accessories, we enlisted many female MBA students for our experiment. We assigned each woman to one of three conditions: authentic, fake or no information. In the authentic condition, we told participants that they would be donning real Chloé designer sunglasses. In the fake condition, we told them that they would be wearing counterfeit sunglasses that looked identical to those made by Chloé (in actuality all the products we used were the real McCoy). Finally, in the no-information condition, we didn’t say anything about the authenticity of the sunglasses.

Once the women donned their sunglasses, we directed them to the hallway, where we asked them to look at different posters and out the windows so that they could later evaluate the quality and experience of looking through their sunglasses. Soon after, we called them into another room for another task.

In this task, the participants were given 20 sets of 12 numbers (3.42, 7.32 and so on), and they were asked to find in each set the two numbers that add up to 10. They had five minutes to solve as many as possible and were paid for each correct answer. We set up the test so that the women could cheat—report that they solved more sets than they did (after shredding their worksheet and all the evidence)—while allowing us to figure out who cheated and by how much (by rigging the shredders so that they only cut the sides of the paper).

Over the years we carried out many versions of this experiment, and we repeatedly find that a lot of people cheated by a few questions. This experiment was not different in this regard, but what was particularly interesting was the effect of wearing counterfeits. While “only” 30 percent of the participants in the authentic condition reported solving more matrices than they actually had, 74 percent of those in the fake condition reported solving more matrices than they actually had. These results gave rise to another interesting question. Did the presumed fakeness of the product make the women cheat more than they naturally would? Or did the genuine Chloé label make them behave more honestly than they would otherwise?

This is why we also had a no-information condition, in which we didn’t mention anything about whether the sunglasses were real or fake. In that condition 42 percent of the women cheated. That result was between the other two, but it was much closer to the authentic condition (in fact, the two conditions were not statistically different from each other). These results suggest that wearing a genuine product does not increase our honesty (or at least not by much). But once we knowingly put on a counterfeit product, moral constraints loosen to some degree, making it easier for us to take further steps down the path of dishonesty.

The moral of the story? If you, your friend, or someone you are dating wears counterfeit products, be careful! Another act of dishonesty may be closer than you expect.

Up to No Good

These results led us to another question: if wearing counterfeits changes the way we view our own behavior, does it also cause us to be more suspicious of others? To find out, we asked another group of participants to put on what we told them were either real or counterfeit Chloé sunglasses. This time, we asked them to fill out a rather long survey with their sunglasses on. In this survey, we included three sets of questions. The questions in set A asked participants to estimate the likelihood that people they know might engage in various ethically questionable behaviors such as standing in the express line with too many groceries. The questions in set B asked them to estimate the likelihood that when people say particular phrases, including “Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was terrible,” they are lying. Set C presented participants with two scenarios depicting someone who has the opportunity to behave dishonestly, and asked them to estimate the likelihood that the person in the scenario would take the opportunity to cheat.

What were the results? You guessed it. When reflecting on the behavior of people they know, participants in the counterfeit condition judged their acquaintances to be more likely to behave dishonestly than did participants in the authentic condition. They also interpreted the list of common excuses as more likely to be lies, and judged the actor in the two scenarios as being more likely to choose the shadier option. We concluded that counterfeit products not only tend to make us more dishonest; they also cause us to view others as less than honest as well.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Corporations As People And the Threat to Truth

Corporations As People And the Threat to Truth

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In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can be treated as people, assigning companies First Amendment rights under the Constitution. So, it’s probably only a matter of time before a real person legally marries (and divorces) a corporation. And, we’re probably not too far from a future where an American corporate CEO can take the life of competing company’s boss and “rightfully” declare that it was in competitive self-defense.

In the meantime, the growing, and much needed, debate over corporate power, corporate responsibility and corporate consciousness rolls on. A timely opinion by Gary Gutting over at the New York Times, gives us more on which to chew.

From the New York Times:

The Occupy Wall Street protest movement has raised serious questions about the role of capitalist institutions, particularly corporations, in our society.   Well before the first protester set foot in Zucotti Park, a heckler urged Mitt Romney to tax corporations rather than people.  Romney’s response — “Corporations are people” — stirred a brief but intense controversy.  Now thousands of demonstrators have in effect joined the heckler, denouncing corporations as ”enemies of the people.”

Who’s right? Thinking pedantically, we can see ways in which Romney was literally correct; for example, corporations are nothing other than the people who own, run and work for them, and they are recognized as “persons” in some technical legal sense.  But it is also obvious that corporations are not people in a full moral sense: they cannot, for example, fall in love, write poetry or be depressed.

Far more important than questions about what corporations are (ontological questions, as philosophers say) is the question of what attitude we should have toward them.  Should we, as corporate public relations statements often suggest, think of them as friends (if we buy and are satisfied with their products) or as family (if we work for them)?  Does it make sense to be loyal to a corporation as either a customer or as an employee?  More generally, even granted that corporations are not fully persons in the way that individuals are, do they have some important moral standing in our society?

My answer to all these questions is no, because corporations have no core dedication to fundamental human values.  (To be clear, I am speaking primarily of large, for-profit, publicly owned corporations.)  Such corporations exist as instruments of profit for their shareholders.  This does not mean that they are inevitably evil or that they do not make essential economic contributions to society.  But it does mean that their moral and social value is entirely instrumental.   There are ways we can use corporations as means to achieve fundamental human values, but corporations do not of themselves work for these values. In fact, left to themselves, they can be serious threats to human values that conflict with the goal of corporate profit.

Corporations are a particular threat to truth, a value essential in a democracy, which places a premium on the informed decisions of individual citizens.  The corporate threat is most apparent in advertising, which explicitly aims at convincing us to prefer a product regardless of its actual merit.

Image: Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy by François Lemoyne. Courtesy of Wikipedia / Wallace Collection, London.