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February 11, 2020 Tuesday 03:27:30 PM IST

Truth Behind Lies

Expert Counsel

Why do people lie? One of the first tenets that children are taught by their parents is to tell the truth. Irrespective of the colour, creed, country, caste and continent, all civil societies teach their younger ones to grow up without telling lies. All religions and teachers stress on the importance of staying honest and truthful. Yet, despite all this,  one seldom comes across a human being who has never uttered a lie in his life. What can be the cause of this bizarre situation wherein mankind refuses to follow the simple gospel of sticking to and stating only the truth?

 The reasons are manifold  but at the root of all of them one would find either the need to gain a advantage over others or to avoid some kind of discomfort. Thus people tell lies out of greed to make more money or they may do so to avoid a conflict or unpleasantness. There is also the refined version of lying where a portion of the truth alone is told, while the more significant aspect is kept deliberately hidden. History of mankind teaches us that compromising with truth is resorted to not only by individuals but by organisations and nations as well.

It is also a fact that deception is part of the existence of certain classes of professionals. A smooth talking conman  deceives people into believing his lies by the confidence with which he talks and conducts himself. Similarly persons practising the profession of espionage are required to live a dual life wherein they gather secret information by stealth and under considerable personal risk, for protecting the interests of their countries. There are also the occasional double agents, who while working as undercover agents for a country, start providing confidential inputs to their opponents. All these professions require plenty of guile and guts, besides a readiness to utter falsehoods with such conviction that it would be taken as nothing less than gospels by the audience!

How does one find out when a person is lying? Malcom Gladwell, the best selling author, who has written authoritative works on social psychology and crime, has attempted this in his latest book titled “ Talking to Strangers”. He begins the book with a story of espionage where the lady officer in charge of the Cuba desk of Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) of USA was found to be on the payroll of Fidel Castro, the very person that the organisation was tasked to eliminate. When this agent was exposed, it came to light that an earlier warning in this regard was ignored as the officer who interviewed her felt that she was telling the truth about her activities. As can be imagined, this incident created a major embarrassment for the spymasters of the most powerful nation on the earth.


 Gladwell has also recalled the historic meeting between Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Adolf Hitler, the Chancellor of Germany, in 1938, after which the former felt that the latter was a man “who could be relied upon once he had given his word”! This faith in the word of the Nazi tyrant led to the policy of appeasement that Britain followed during the period immediately preceding World War ll. Chamberlain was the target of considerable ridicule when Hitler demonstrated little compunction in throwing to the wind the promises he had given the British Premier about having no territorial interests in Poland, within an year.

With the benefit of hindsight one can see that the intelligence apparatus of USA as well as the Prime Minister of Britain made grave errors of judgement while assessing the true character of persons they interacted with, leading to grave consequences. Gladwell postulates that this inability of otherwise intelligent and capable individuals to understand that they are being deceived is on account of “Truth Default theory”, wherein persons start by believing and stop doing so only when the body of evidence against this belief grows up beyond the tipping point. Thus the officer who interviewed the Cuban spy believed her as his default mechanism was tuned to take as truth what she said. Similarly Chamberlain looked into the eyes of Hitler and felt his firm double handed hand shake and believed that the German leader was a person who kept his word.  It was only when the mountain of evidence grew substantially that they chose to discard this blind belief and saw the truth.

 Gladwell also simultaneously cautions that it would be foolhardy to be overly suspicious. He cites the instance of a cop stopping a young lady and arresting her for as minor a traffic offence as changing lanes without signalling. The lady committed suicide while in custody, triggering off a wave of protests that led to the removal of the policeman from service. Gladwell argues that though the action of cop would appear to be unduly heavy handed, he was only strictly following a protocol of Kansas Police regarding traffic stops and felt there was sufficient evidence to haul up the lady. It was subsequently proved that this constituted a grave error of judgement, which would not have happened had the officer been in a “truth default” mode and accepted the explanation of the lady for the error rather than growing suspicious over her words and actions following the traffic stop.

 Another interesting aspect that this book analyses is the phenomenon of “blackout” that happens due to ingestion of high levels of alcohol. In a society where drinking, and particularly binge drinking by younger generation and women, is on the rise, the observations of the author carry great relevance. Gladwell states that “blackout” or the situation where a person is not aware about what he or she is doing, happens when the blood levels of alcohol exceeds specific levels and affects the functioning of the hippocampal area of brain. This is a potentially dangerous situation as the person concerned might be going about his life, without being aware about what he is actually doing. The author has cited instances where such blackouts had led to physical molestation and even rape, which underlines the risks involved with ingesting large quantity of alcohol in a short period.


 Sections of this book are devoted to the potential hazards of excessive interrogation of suspects and the link between suicides and the availability of easy opportunities for doing so. Gladwell suggests, through examples, that intense interrogation will create severe stress that can cause temporary amnesia, which would be counter productive for investigators. He puts forward the credible theory that frequency of suicides are coupled with availability of favourable circumstances for carrying them out. He has given the examples of replacement of town gas with piped gas in London and construction of barriers around Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco as measures that removed easy opportunities for potential candidates, thus bringing down the incidence of suicides in these cities.

 “Talking to Strangers” is different from other works of Gladwell in that it does not offer any solutions to the issues that are discussed therein. But the author succeeds in highlighting various unknown aspects of each of them thus enlightening the reader and increasing his awareness and insight. Like his other works, this book should also be made compulsory reading for all persons interested in knowing more about the functioning of human mind, the most complicated creation of God.


Dr. K N Raghavan

The writer is Chairman and Executive Director Of Rubber Board. 
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