Thursday, February 11

Crafting Reality: Proficiency or Deficiency?

Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute, cited an interesting study that came out of the University of Toronto and the University of California, San Diego, late last year. The study found that while parents say that honesty is the best policy, they lie to their children in order to influence behavior and emotions.

The researchers said they were surprised by how often what they call "parenting by lying" takes place, especially among those who most strongly promote the importance of honesty. I'm not surprised.

In 1996, Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia, asked 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71 keep a diary of all the falsehoods they told over the course of a week. They found most people lie as much as twice a day. This did not include mindless pleasantries or polite equivocations such as saying "you're fine" when you're obviously not.

DePaulo's study is consistent with another study on lying conducted around 2004. They asked 30 students to keep track of their social communications for seven days, and those students admitted to lying about 1.6 times per day. The study also concluded people are more likely to lie on the phone, but only marginally so.

And yet, another study on lying from the University of Arizona marked increases in children ages 6-8 and 9-11. The study breaks lying down into four categories: pro-social (protecting someone), self-enhancement (avoid embarrassment), selfish (conceal misdeeds at expense of others), and anti-social (hurting someone intentionally). Other studies, by the way, pinpoint that lying begins around three years of age.

You get the point. People lie all the time. And they are obviously well practiced.

So what can we do about it?

What stood out to me in the post from the Josephson Institute, which develops services and materials to increase ethical competence, were three points (paraphrased below) I found useful as a future teaching model.

• Risk Assessment. Is the benefit worth the risk, especially when the risk includes trust?
• Alternative Action. Can you accomplish a goal another way, knowing that necessity isn’t fact but interpretation?
• Long-term Consequences. Have you fully considered the consequences, especially if it puts others at risk or if it is exposed several months or years later.

The reason this list is such an excellent teaching tool is that communicators are sometimes asked to lie for the organizations they serve. My advice, consistently, is not to do it. However, that sometimes leaves students at a loss of how to approach the subject.

The first step in confronting a lie.

Ethics suggest that when communicators become privy to mistruths, they address it with the responsible party first. This allows the responsible party an opportunity to correct it before turning to a higher authority. The imperative becomes helping the responsible party consider several points, much like those laid out by the Josephson Institute.

Long-term consequences tend to be the most overlooked. Cutting corners to meet production demands at the expense of safety might not be noticeable until someone is injured. Padding departmental budget expenses over the course of several years can result in layoffs when the organization faces hard times. Attempting to be noble by padding scores in an awards contest may reinforce the winner's belief that inferior work is acceptable.

Whatever the case, long-term consequences are not always known when people attempt to change perception.

Interestingly enough, fear and narcissism tend to be the driving justifiers for lies. People who lie are afraid of the truth or, in some cases, believe that their direct manipulation of facts are necessary to produce a specific outcome. When you think about it, those traits are also why parents who place a honesty in high regard still lie to their children in order to change behavior.

In closing, I might add that objective assessment and effective communication on the front end is a remedy as well.

For instance, Gail Heyman, professor of psychology at UC San Diego, said telling a 2-year-old that you don't like their drawing is cruel. Therefore, such a pro-social lie is seen as somewhat justifiable.

However, it seems to me that in such a case the error isn't the drawing as much as it assessment of the drawing (considering the artist is two years old) or the inability to communicate effectively, such as offering ways to improve the picture. This way, the parent won't hurt the child's self-esteem but won't enable them either. In other words, choose your words carefully.

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