A thought that got stuck in my head the other year is that lies are actually far less common that we would like to believe. With “lies”, I mean people trying to make other people believe things they don’t believe themselves.

By this definition, it is not a lie to tell other people what you believe to be true. Even if you happen to be incorrect. When people say things that we find incorrect our outright absurd, we like to think that they secretly agree with us. That they are being dishonest when they present things differently from what we consider to be true. That they simply choose to withhold the validation we feel that we know that we deserve. Thus, I think it is very easy to overestimate how much people lie. As well as to underestimate how much people are simply wrong about things. Note that “people” here refers not only to other people, but to ourselves as well.

What we believe to be true or untrue is not merely a matter of facts seen from various perspectives and viewpoints. It is also very much a matter of what seems to be socially appropriate. There are two basic ways of learning things. One is to try to understand and evaluate, the other to simply mimic and digest. With this second way of learning, which is probably far more common than the first, “the truth” is simply whatever people will like you to believe in.

This view was reinforced as I read Goffmans “Social life as Drama”. In this essasy, Goffman argued that people appreciate other people both for agreeing with them and for being honest. Thus, critical thinking is not a good thing if you want to be popular: If you openly disagree with people, you make yourself an outsider… and if you secretly have reservations about the things you are supposed to agree with, this makes you a bit of a dishonest hypocrite or liar. When you think for yourself, disagreeing with other people is a matter of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. No, the socially appropriate mindset is to blindly swallow anything people tell you. That way, you will give people not only the outright agreement they appreciate but also the honesty they also appreciate.

Another perspective on lies is presented by Richard Dawkins in his most famous book, “The Selfish Gene”. Dawkins argues that animals can be seen as liars in a biological (but not moral) sense when evolution shapes the bodies of edible insects to save them from getting eaten by mimicing insects that are poisonous. Or shapes part of the bodies of fish to mimic edible insects, as a way of luring in prey. Or urge birds to make sounds that are false alarms to other birds, leaving the offending bird to eat all the food while the other birds flee as they would from a predator. The animals have no idea that they are doing this, but it still happens. Simple natural selection.

Similar processes are at play in social life. We are likely to adapt by adopting patterns of thought and behavior that tend to have good consequences. For example, making us popular. Or at least abstain from making us unpopular. Social reinforcement in school and play teaches all the kids that the truth is whatever happens to be popular. Just go with he flow. Internalize any bullshit you hear, and be honest about it. At least when it comes from someone who is popular, or who is in a position to hurt you in one way or another. Such as humiliating you, freeze you out socially, or lower your grades.

In school, we learn so many facts and stories about the world. Indirectly, we also learn that all this information is true… not because of evidence, but because we will personally be failures if we don’t agree with the books and teachers. Each time a new lesson in how to not think.

For Dawkins, these thoughts led him to a sense of revulsion against religion. For me, I’m sort of starting to feel a similar kind of revulsion towards all political ideologies. Including the ones I agree with. It is not the beliefs themselves that are the problem. It is the herd mentality, the basic foundations that certain things are true or untrue because you live in a subculture where it is socially appropriate to believe them or disbelieve them. Empty slogans, aggressive oversimplifications, and the constant dividing of people into the righteous in-group and the blasphemous outsiders who more or less deviate from the one true party line. The worst part of it all… is the honesty.