The Surprising Rationality of the Lie

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When I was at a friend's wedding, his father mentioned a surprisingly sick story about a boy whose older brother committed suicide, and for Christmas the boy was given a gun as a gift: more specifically, his older brother's suicide weapon. (I should clarify that my friend's father was not being sick; his conversation with me on the topic was entirely appropriate...)

In the book he mentioned, Scott Peck's People of the Lie talks about a personality profile that was characterized by narcissism and several other warped things; surprisingly, at least to me, the single defect the author chose to crystallize what was wrong was that they were characterized by lies. We tend to think of lies today as not the most serious evil, perhaps using an idiom like "not the end of the world." Peck meant something very serious by characterizing these patients as "people of the lie."

In one statement that the author does not unpack (probably more because he did not want to slow the text down rather than a failure to understand what was going on), the boy's mother said, with what I would call narrower entailment than implicature, "Most sixteen year old boys would have given their eyeteeth to have a gun!" This statement is, of course, in an almost literal sense true, in that literally speaking, most sixteen year old boys would be delighted to receive a gun for Christmas. However, it was in a deeper sense false and a lie in that it idiomatically conveys that it was reasonable under the circumstances to believe in good faith that this sixteen year old boy would have been delighted to receive that gun as his Christmas gift. (Interested parties may read me unpack an "emotional plea" with discussion of entailment and implicature in a dissertation.) Such lies, once analyzed, shed light on what is sick in the discussion. An (almost) literally true statement here conveys a lie; the "almost" does not specifically amount to deception but using a metaphor that does not lie, about giving one's "eyeteeth." Elsewhere the author complains about a half-truth that conveys a lie. Here I would say that no matter how literally true a statement is, lying is in the author's mind deeply, deeply characteristic of what has gone wrong.

My specific reason for bringing Scott Peck and People of the Lie has to do with something else, the surprising rationality of the lie. In his book, and in my own life, I might accuse people of lying, but I cannot interpret their behavior as clumsy, random, or unthinking. Scott Peck complains about the "cheapness, laziness, and insensitivity" of making the gun the boy's Christmas gift. I would speak differently, and here please do not accuse me of speaking against the spirit of Peck's book, even if I attempt "change from within" (as C.S. Lewis uses the term in The Abolition of Man).

The choice of gift was the result of the parents' solution to an optimization problem, of what under the circumstances would best advance their campaign. It might have been horrifyingly insensitive to buy him a new, bigger and better gun, but the gun they gave really leaves no doubt. If they had seen an opportunity to make the gift sicker by gluing camouflaged razor blades to the outside of the gun so he would (in a literal sense) cut his hands when he innocently picked the gun up, they would have done so. This was no mere case of giving an ashtray to someone who doesn't smoke. They could have given him, without thinking, a used Barbie doll from a garage style or a new book in a language he doesn't read. Or, for that matter, shaved his head and given him a set of combs. A gun, or more specifically this gun, does something else exquisitely well. It says, "Your turn."

Behavior that seems thoughtless or irrational, from people of the lie, is usually nothing of the sort, perhaps because we assume rationality is a rationality of good faith. So that gun is seen as an astonishingly bad failure in an attempt to give an appropriate Christmas present: cheap, lazy, and insensitive. It is in fact nothing of the sort. Much seemingly irrational behavior is in fact perfectly rational in an attempted solution to the problem of finding a seemingly socially appropriate way to pursue socially inappropriate goals. Behavior may be rational and sick, or rational and treacherous, or rational and warped. But offensive behavior, in a People of the Lie context, even or especially when it seems puzzlingly irrational, is usually rational in the pursuit of a wrong goal. I do not find the young woman's behavior mystifying, who behaved in seemingly inexplicable ways in receiving therapy. She had plenty of IQ and her behavior makes perfect sense as amusing herself by toying with, mystifying, and frustrating a psychiatrist. Her behavior seems irrational on the assumption that she was approaching a psychiatrist with the goal of bettering herself by receiving real psychotherapy. Once we discard the assumption of good faith seeking psychotherapy, all of her making the psychiatrist sexually uncomfortable (for instance) makes perfect sense as a very intelligent person rationally pursuing an inappropriate goal. (Possibly, though I remember no direct evidence of this, in her mind, she was killing two birds with one stone and getting even, after one or more people insisted she get treatment.)

Elsewhere, if I am recalling the book correctly (I may be conflating two stories), the author complains about professional parents whose line of work required empathy were surprisingly unempathetic in dealing with their children, and appeared to comment that it's almost as if their goal was to break their son's spirit, but despite the allegation the author does not take seriously this possible goal. I submit that this guess is right on the money. At one point, their son worked with disabled people and was awarded a trip to a conference which his parents confiscated on the assertion that his room was not clean. The author commented that he would be worried if a son of his age didn't have a somewhat messy room, and appeared to believe that they believe that confiscating such an award was genuinely proportionate discipline for a messy room. I submit that they found a seemingly socially appropriate way to implement socially inappropriate behavior, and they confiscated the trip and honor because it was a seemingly, or at least arguably, socially appropriate way to break his spirit on terms that even the author of People of the Lie would not equate with a naked and obvious effort to break their son's spirit.

What this means for the profoundly gifted, or many who are gifted but happen not to be at that echelon, is this. "Confucius say that elevator smell different to dwarf." Maybe, but Confucius should also say eight foot tall elevator feel different to nine or ten foot tall intellectual giant. In cases where he was treating a child of "people of the lie," the author usually found the child much less sick, and more of a victim, than parents guilty of aggression. (He talked about the "identified patient," meaning that in a dysfunctional situation the person labelled as a psychiatric patient may well be the least in need of psychiatric treatment.) Furthermore, as I explored in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab, meeting someone who is by far the most brilliant person that someone has ever met brings out some insecurities in people. Most of the parents he discusses succeeded in social situations where success requires some genuine sensitivity. The author wonders and is mystified that they didn't apply their well-developed sensitivity to dealing with their child. I submit that they were perfectly sensitive, but applied their sensitivity in the service of a warped goal.

If you are dealing with a People of the Lie situation, a couple of things. First of all, it may defuse some frustration to move from believing "They are trying to behave in a socially appropriate way but doing a mystifying and painfully bad way of doing it (and reasoning with them doesn't work)," to "They are rationally pursuing inappropriate behavior in a way they are presenting as socially appropriate (and the results of reasoning with them are inline with this." It defuses some of "They are being painfully irrational and defy attempts at being rational." And if what they want is to get your goat, standard psychological advice may apply. Second, it is more effective to work with people on grounds of their actual motivation than a motivation falsely presented. Not a panacea, but it is surely not a panacea to tell people who want to get your goat, in perfectly good faith, "You are hurting me."

I submit that being willing to consider the possibility of encountering the rational behavior of "people of the lie" can be part of a constructive exercise of Theory of Alien Minds.