Lie, Cheat, Steal–and the Shame of It All?

Today’s spotlight is all about deception and shame. If I haven’t already told you about Steven Pinker’s book, Blank Slate, let me recommend it now. The subtitle to this wonderful contribution is The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Pinker essentially shows that the idea of the mind as a blank slate and the notion of the so-called noble savage are gross errors that have led to many misunderstandings and political fallacies. I have no intention of stealing any of his thunder, so let me just say—this is an important read for anyone interested in understanding both the human condition and the world we live in. That said, the book reminds me of how we heap shame and blame on folks in order to manipulate their behavior.

Everyone Lies

Think about this easy one—everyone lies, cheats, and steals and yet we think of this as criminal behavior. For many years I spent a large part of my working life conducting detection of deception tests (lie detection). There is a lot of psychology employed during an exam of this nature including positioning an examinee according to the societal norm of honesty. As such, an examinee may well be asked questions intentionally designed to make them uncomfortable, to add stress to their answer, as a measure to compare against relevant questions. This form of examination is called a zone of comparison test.

Detection of Deception

Ok, imagine that you were asked to take a lie detection test. You’re naturally concerned about the accuracy of the test and the questions you may be asked. Let’s assume you’re innocent, and the test is to demonstrate your innocence. The examiner sits you in a plain room with nothing on the walls and begins the pre-test interview. He/she may begin with something like this: “I know you came here to tell the truth today. Why else would you come? I mean I’m sure you’re not a liar, cheat or thief. I mean that’s the behavior of criminals. You’re not a criminal are you?”

You respond with an emphatic NO.

The examiner continues, “Ok, good, then I’m going to ask you today if you have ever stolen anything? You haven’t have you?”

You probably answer NO.

“And I’m going to ask you if you have ever deliberately cheated anyone. You haven’t done that either have you?”

Again, you probably answer NO.

“And I’m going to ask you if you have ever lied to someone who trusted you? You haven’t have you?”

Again you probably answer NO—however if you are thoughtful and remember lying to your mother or father or spouse, etc., then the examiner asks you to share these lies. Following your clarification, the examiner simply rephrases the question to go like this, “Have you ever lied to someone who trusted you other than what you have shared with me today?”

Lie, Cheat, and Steal

Now here’s the fact—everyone has lied, cheated and stolen in life. Perhaps it was a few coins from a sibling, some game you cheated at, or a story you told friends that was inflated, colorized and/or factually simply so much BS. Since everyone is guilty of this sort of behavior, why are we ashamed of it when confronted in a ‘tell the truth’ scenario?

I submit that this is but one tiny aspect of human nature that we choose to pretend the truly noble savage never indulges in. Human nature is not as squeaky clean as we might want to believe, and again, this is but one tiny aspect of behavior that we choose to ignore.

In my view, the best way to know who we are begins by admitting what we are. Bottom line—we are not what most pretend to be.

My thoughts—what are yours?

Eldon Taylor

Eldon Taylor
Provocative Enlightenment
NY Time Bestselling Author of Choices and Illusions