Q & A with Ralph Keyes

Q.  What got you interested in this subject?

A.  The sense that I was being told more lies than ever.  I think a lot of people feel that way.  As I say in the book, the feeling is widespread that a whole lotta lyin’s going on.

Q.  Are we telling more lies than we used to?

A.  It’s hard to say whether each one of us is lying more.  I do believe that it’s easier than ever to tell lies.  As a result, we’re more casually dishonest than we used to be.  And there is no question that we all are the targets of more dishonesty and deception than ever before.

Q. Why is that?

A.  Technology for one thing.  Modern technology is the midwife of the post-truth era.  Television is an amoral medium.  Voice mail messages are not to be taken seriously.  (“I can’t come to the phone right now.”)  The anonymity of the Internet makes it easy to deceive others.  Cell phones offer all sorts of new possibilities to engage in creative, techno-aided hoodwinking.  All contribute to an environment in which dishonesty becomes a casual activity, and ethics are ambiguous.

Q.  Are there any other factors?

A.  We can’t overlook the influence of mentor-figures such as therapists, lawyers, politicians, and entertainers. All have a flexible approach to honesty.  Alt.ethics I call it. Practitioners of alt.ethics are enablers of post-truthfulness.  Due to the media such figures loom larger than ever in our lives.  So do baby boomers with their self-absorbed moral ambiguity.  But nothing is more important than the breakdown of community.  When we don’t feel tied to people around us, we’re more likely to deceive them.  The sheer size of modern society and stepped-up mobility turbo charge this process.  As the volume of strangers and acquaintances in our lives rises, so do opportunities to be deceptive.

Q.  What are some of the results?

A.  The epidemic of resume padding is one result.   Another is simply bragging about credentials we didn’t earn: combat medals, say, or the Ph.D. we wish we’d completed but didn’t.   It’s easier than ever to pass ourselves off as someone we aren’t.  We become what I call “imposeurs.”

Q.  Are men more likely to do this than women?

A.  Yes.  Research has found the men are much more likely than women to tell bragging, self-serving lies.  On the other hand, women are more likely to tell accommodating fibs:   “Love the dress,” say, or “You are such a great lover.”  When it comes to sex, lying is routine across genders, though in different ways.  Men are more likely to exaggerate their number of sexual partners, for example, women to reduce that figure.

Q. How do you assess the current political campaign in terms of honesty or dishonesty?

A.  Lying is a bipartisan activity.  It is engaged in by politicians of the left, right, and center.  I believe there’s a difference in the types of lies they tell, however.  Democrats tend to tell more petty self-serving lies, such as Clinton’s fibs about his love life.  Republicans are more deceptive on policy matters: calling an easing of environmental controls a “Clean Air Act,” for example, or increased logging a “Healthy Forest Initiative.”  In the case of Bush, I don’t see him as an outright liar so much as a guy who gets a story line in mind then resists and squelches any facts that don’t fit this line: the actual cost of a Medicare prescription benefit, say, or what it would take to occupy Iraq.  Bush is a classic baby boomer.  Like so many members of that self-righteous generation, Bush seems to feel that if he says something, it must be so.  The truth, therefore is whatever he says it is.  The real problem is that our standards of honesty are so degraded in the post-truth era that we let him, and so many others, get away with this.

Q. Is it possible to tell when someone’s lying to you?

A.  It’s very hard.  Studies have found that even those with a professional need to detect lies – judges, police officers, customs inspectors – rarely spot lies at a rate greater than chance.  The cues we think betray a liar seldom do.  Accomplished liars are usually very good at maintaining steady eye contact.  And so-called “lie detectors” have no proven scientific validity.

Q.  What are some of the results of post-truthful behavior?

A.  A decline of trust and rise of suspicion primarily.  A society in which suitors figure they’d better Google each other before getting too serious is one that’s lost confidence in itself.  We need to reestablish that honesty is our default setting, if not guaranteed.

Q.  How?

A.  The news is not all bad.  The same tools that make it easier to deceive others also make it easier to uncover deception.  Any number of Internet sites are doing yeoman duty in exposing deception.  The print media continues to be dogged in pursuing dishonesty among public figures, and in its own ranks.  We also have a greater emphasis than ever on discovery in legal proceedings, transparency in business dealings, and informed consent among medical patients.  At a personal level, nothing matters more than raising honest kids by modeling integrity.  Most important of all is strengthening our bonds with others: feeling so tied to other people that we wouldn’t risk those relationships for the mere convenience of a lie.