May 7, 2014

Lying to Ourselves
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Jad Abumrad: Hello. I'm Jad.

Robert Krulwich: Hi. I'm Robert.

Jad: This is Radiolab. Today on our program the topic is liars.

Robert: All kinds of liars, and now it's time for the liar we haven't yet mentioned. A lier which might actually be one very familiar to you Jad. This is the self-deceiver. Somebody who lies not to others, but actually lies to oneself. Do you get my drift?

Jad: Thanks Krulwich. Thanks a lot. Anyhow, what does that even mean to lie to oneself? How would you-

Robert: It's tricky. Let me give you a classic example. Let's say that you are madly in love with somebody.

Jad: To who?

Robert: Just conjure up whoever you really-- I don't know who.

Jad: Okay.

Robert: Now you're in love with her, and strange things start to happen. You're at home, the phone rings. You pick it up-

Jad: Hello.

Robert: -and the person on the other end of the line is breathing and then hangs up. Next, she's suddenly staying late at the office, many nights a week. Didn't used to.

Fictional love interest: Jad, honey, I've got to work late tonight again, don't wait up.

Robert: Then your friends tell you that they see this woman-

Jad: Who's this guy?

Robert: -in the company of a man.

Jad: Does she have a brother, maybe?

Robert: Repeatedly.

Jad: Dude, come on.

Robert: In short, all the signs are there, and yet, despite the evidence, you, Jad, continue to believe, and I mean, you truly, truly believe that the woman is being faithful.

Jad: Well, maybe in this little scenario that you've created for me, I'm just stupid, or clueless?

Robert: Well, I'm not going to take that away from you. I'm not, but in this case, though, for the sake of argument, let's say you're not clueless. Let's say, you believe both these things in some different compartments in your head. You believe that she is faithful, and at the very same time, you know what's really going on here.

Joanna: What self-deception really is, is that you have two contradictory beliefs, and you hold them at the same time, and you allow one of them into consciousness that you have a motivation for allowing one of them into consciousness.

Robert: That's Joanna Starek. She's a psychologist, and we're going to hear more from her later.

Jad: All right. How does that work then?

Robert: What?

Jad: What you just said, like to have two contradictory thoughts in your brain at the same time, and yet, you're only letting in one?

Robert: Well, there's an experiment on this subject, kind of an interesting one.

Jad: Another experiment.

Robert: Let me introduce you to the two guys who did it. Okay?

Harold: I'm Harold Sackheim. I'm a professor in the department of psychiatry and radiology at Columbia University.

Ruben: Okay, my name is Ruben Gur. I'm a neuropsychologist by training.

Robert: Harold Sackheum and Ruben Gur are friends. They met back in 1974.

Ruben: or 73.

Robert: Make that ''73. One was a grad student, that would be Harold. One was a professor, that's Gur.

Ruben: Yes. We started talking and-

Harold: Making a long story short, we did a couple of experiments. In one of them, we played clips of one's own voice and the voices of other people.

Robert: Here's the experiment. You, the subject, are sitting in a room. Okay?

Jad: All right.

Robert: We're going to give you a big red button, and you can press it.

Jad: Okay, I press the button.

Robert: Not yet.

Jad: Sorry.

Robert: Out of the speakers in this room, you're going to hear 10 different voices.

Harold: Everybody was saying the same thing. The words were the same.

Voices: Come here, come here, come here, come here, come here, come here.

Robert: One of the voices in this group, one of the many, is you Jad. You saying-

Jad: Come here.

Robert: Right there. That was you. Now, when you hear yourself saying come, press the button.

Harold: Press the button, me or not me?

Robert: When you hear your own voice.

Voices: Come here. Come here.

Jad: One of these is mine?

Robert: Yes.

Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here.

Jad: No.

Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here.

Jad: Yes.

Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here.

Jad: Not me. Not me.

Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here.

Jad: Me. I think.

Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here.

Robert: Now, if you listen very closely, it's going to come at three, two-

Voices: Come here.

Robert: -that's it.

Jad: Not me. Not me. Not me.

Robert: He missed it.

Jad: This is hard.

Robert: You're right, and the people in Harold's study, many of them didn't do too well either.

Jad: They had some trouble recognizing their own voice. All right, bring it home, Robert. What's the point of this?

Robert: Here's what I didn't tell you. When they did this experiment in real life. The real subjects, in addition to having the little pusher button thing that we gave you, they also had diodes all over their body measuring-

Harold: We recorded their physiology-

Robert: Perspiration-

Ruben: Skin sweating, heart rate-

Robert: Heartbeat, stuff like that-

Ruben: Blood pressure-

Robert: What they found is that when a person failed to recognize his or her voice, nevertheless, their body, the sweat, the heartbeat.

Harold: Most often the body is going "ehhhhh'

Robert: Their body seem to notice their voices even though their conscious minds missed the voice. The body knew, the conscious mind didn't. Two thoughts in the same person.

Jad: Oh, come on. No, I'll give it to you. That's kind of interesting.

Robert: Thank you very much.

Jad: But that is not the same thing as lying.

Robert: Well, we're just starting here. Now at least grant me this, you can have two different experiences simultaneously.

Jad: Yes, okay, I grant that you just--

Robert: Okay. We're on our way. We're on our way. Okay, step two, Harold and Ruben decide to leave the laboratory and go to a bar.

Ruben: Yes, I believe it was Smokey Joe's.

Robert: Just to sort of talk things over.

Ruben: Kick back a bit.

Robert: And to deal with your very question, like let's really get to the core of what lying to yourself is about.

Ruben: Exactly.

Robert: They're in the bar, and they're getting kind of drunk.

Harold: We were probably pretty drunk.

Robert: Ruben proposes, "We need to come up with some way to get test subjects, to have one thought and instantly have a contradictory thought. Maybe we could do that with embarrassment. Maybe we could embarrass them into having two thoughts at the same time."

Ruben: Yes, and at some point, I said, "Let's ask people questions."

Robert: Questions-

Harold: So threatening-

Robert: -so uncomfortable that you don't want to tell the truth about them.

Jad: What questions would those be?

Robert: Well.

Harold: We had to get down and dirty.

Robert: They got drunker and drunker and drunker and they came up with a whole bunch of them.

Ruben: Started writing them down right there in the bar on a napkin.

Robert: We were curious, so we took their questions off the napkin, so to speak, and we brought them out onto the street.

Interviewer: Can I ask you some questions while you're waiting?

Respondent 1: Yes, sure.

Robert: So here's one.

Respondent 2: Have you ever doubted your sexual adequacy?

Jad: Oh.

Respondent 2: No.

Robert: And-

Respondent 1: Yes.

Robert: - another

Respondent 3: Have you ever enjoyed your bowel movements?

Jad: I've enjoyed my bowel movements?

Robert: Yes.

Respondent 4: I think most normal people do.

Respondent 3: No.

Robert: Here's another

Respondent 5: Have you ever thought of committing suicide in order to get back at somebody?]

Jad: Yikes.

Respondent 5: No.

Robert: And another.

Respondent 6: Have you ever wanted to rape or be raped by somebody?

Jad: Come again?

Respondent 6: No, no.

Respondent 7: Absolutely not.

Respondent 8: No.

Respondent 9: Oh, no.

Respondent 10: Oh yes.

Jad: Have I what?

Robert: Jad.

Jad: What kind of question is that?

Robert: If you answered no to any of those questions, they would say that you're lying to yourself.

Jad: They are assuming then that everybody enjoys their bowel movements secretly, everyone secretly has rape fantasies.

Robert: That is what they are assuming.

Harold: Yes, it was a supposition that these things are universal truths but it was supposition that seemed to work.

Robert: Because that night at the bar, Harold and Ruben stumbled across something. It turns out that how you answer those questions predicts some very surprising things about the kind of person you are, about the course of your whole life. First of all, remember that previous study we talked about what the voices?

Jad: Yes.

Robert: It just so happens that the people who were very bad at the voice test, failed the voice test, they were the very same people who did very badly on the embarrassing questionnaire test. They didn't want to admit to stuff.

Respondent 11: Have you ever wanted to rape or be raped by somebody? No, not at all.

Robert: However, when other scientists got ahold of Harold and Ruben's questionnaire, and they used it a lot in lots of situations.

Harold: It's been given to thousands and thousands of people.

Robert: They dug deeper into the question of what do these people have trouble with truthiness? What happens to them in life?

Jad: And?

Robert: It turns out, that they do a whole lot better in all kinds of areas--

Jad: Better?

Robert: Better, better, better in all kinds of things.

Jad: Like what?

Robert: A whole lot of stuff.

Jad: Like?

Robert: Can we now say by the way that these people are liars?

Jad: I'm not quite ready to say that but okay, let's just call them liars and can you please tell me what the hell you're talking about? What sorts of things do they do better at?

Robert: Well, just to start, let me introduce you to someone.

Joanna: Okay. My name is Joanna Starek, and I'm a psychologist.

Robert: Psychologist and athlete.

Joanna: I was actually a swimmer. I was a competitive swimmer at Colgate University and I think one of the questions that I was really interested in is, how can you have two people who have the same physiological capacity and then one person over and over again would consistently win or outperform the other?

Robert: Joanna had heard about Harold and Ruben's questionnaire so she and her research partner, Caroline Keating decided to give the embarrassing question questionnaire to the swim team just to see what they'd find.

Joanna: We gave them that questionnaire at the beginning of the season and then they trained, trying to qualify for the Eastern Athletic Conference Championship.

Robert: That's the big race of the end of the year.

Joanna: It's a very objective measure, you either swim fast enough during the season to qualify, or you don't.

Robert: When at the end of the season, Joanna and her research partner Carolyn looked at which swimmers did the best, which ones qualified-

Joanna: We did find a bizarre relationship.

Robert: The swimmers who said, the liars, who said, "No," to all these questions-

Joanna: Do you enjoy your bowel movements?

Respondent 12: No.

Joanna: Have you ever thought about killing yourself?

Respondent 13: No.

Joanna: Have you ever thought about raping someone?

Respondent 14: No.

Robert: -consistently--

Joanna: They were the winners.

Robert: The fastest and most successful swimmers were the ones who on the questionnaire, according to Harold and Ruben, lied to themselves.

Joanna: Yes. I do think a little bit of deception is not necessarily a bad thing.

Robert: It might even be a crucial thing, and just for example, I want you to listen to these Olympic track athletes. We got these interview clips from the sound artist Ben Rubin. Listen to how these athletes describe the process of getting ready to race.

Athlete 1: We believe we're invincible. Because if we go in there with any other thought there's no chance of us accomplishing our goal.

Athlete 2: Well, of course, I always went in my thoughts. [laughs]

Jad: It's like I have the ability to catch this person. It's going to happen.

Athlete 3: Take your head off. Leave your head at home. Leave your brain at home today. When I step on the runway, I just relax myself. You are the best, and I go.

Robert: More than sports, denying certain facts about the real world around you, according to any number of new studies, produces people who turn out are better at business and better at working with teams. Now here's the real kicker, they turn out to be happier people.

Harold: The questionnaire serves a couple of purposes. One of the things that it taught us is that people who are happiest were the ones who were lying to themselves more.

Joanna: The people who were the most realistic, that actually see the world exactly as it is, tend to be slightly more depressed than others.

Robert: Time and time again, researchers have found that depressed people lie less.

Ruben: They see all the pain in the world. How horrible people are with each other and they tell you everything about themselves. What their weaknesses are, what terrible things they've done to other people and the problem is they're right. Maybe it's the way we help people, that help them be wrong.

Robert: It might just be that hiding ideas that we know to be true, hiding those ideas from ourselves is what we need to get by.

Ruben: We're so vulnerable to being hurt that we're giving the capacity to distort as a gift.

Jad: Well that's it for us. If you want any more information on anything you heard this hour check our website radiolab.org.

Robert: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: And this is Radiolab.

Jad: Thanks for listening.

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Jude: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad, with Lulu Miller, Rob Christiansen, Ellen Horne, Justin Paul, and Soren Wheeler. Production support by Amber Seely, Lasca Kebbell, Jed Torres, Sara Pellegrini, Arielle Lasky, Heather Radke, Michael O'Ryan McManus, and Sally Herships. Special thanks to me, Jude Hoffner, Jane Damestra and-

Scott: Scott Robinson. Radiolab is funded in parts by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation a corporation for public broadcasting under National Science Foundation. Radiolab is produced by WNYC New York Public Radio and distributed by NPR, National Public Radio. Bye.

 

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