Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships by Robert Feldman (unabridged audio book read by Bob Walter)

"Deception forms a common part of ordinary social interactions.... If we didn't lie, we would be considered socially awkward, not to mention something of a jerk." — from The Liar in Your Life

You're a liar. And you're lied to every day. Think you're not? Count the number of times someone answers "Fine" to your "How are you?" when they're obviously bothered by something. Even your "How are you?" is a lie, because how often do you really want to hear about an acquaintance's personal problems? And how many times have you said, "What a beautiful baby" when you really believe the child looks just like its ugly parents?

Why do we lie so much? Why are lies like, "That dress looks great on you" and "The dinner was delicious" considered vital for social interaction when, if we knew the person was lying to us, we would likely be disturbed — and yet, according to the research of author Richard Feldman, just as likely to increase the number of our lies to that person?

In The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships (which is being marketed as self-help when it's really a wonderful psychological portrait of deception), Feldman shows that even trained lie detectors like police officers are statistically only as good as the average person at detecting a lie: accurate less than half the time (this is worse than random guessing). He also describes the liar's advantage and the truth bias, and offers tips on encouraging truth and how to find the balance between "radical honesty" and blatant deception.

Feldman shows how the legend about George Washington and the cherry tree is a made-up story that we ironically use to keep children honest. And there is a politeness / honesty paradox. We teach children to always be honest, but then we want them to be polite, a practice that often involves outright lying if not merely the omission of the truth.

Surprisingly, Feldman's take on lying is not entirely negative. He goes on in The Liar in Your Life about how, in our society, knowing how (and more importantly, when) to lie is a sign of proper social development. There is even evidence that deception is a survival instinct. Natural selection favors deceitful practices like camouflage and "playing dead," and even infants as young as 6 months will use false crying to get attention. Is it possible we're born to lie?

Dr. Feldman may be mildly long-winded, but he has so much interesting information to impart that it's rarely a problem. Instead, his conversational narrative style makes the bulk of The Liar in Your Life go down easily. Remarkably, audiobook reader Bob Walter adopts this style as his own so completely that it seems as if the author is reading it himself.

From self-deception to cognitive dissonance, from blind dates to job interviews, from résumé padding to online avatars, from Lou Pearlman to Bernie Madoff, lying is a part of our everyday life, even a part of being human. So maybe it's less important to be honest all the time than it is to be aware of the deception that surrounds us. That sounds like a more reasonable expectation, at least until something better comes along.

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