Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Lies I Wish Were True

I think of myself as a rather creative person.  Which could mean that you shouldn't trust me at all.  
I was listening to an episode of Scientific American's Science Talk podcast this week.  It was a recording of a phone interview with Dan Ariely, a professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University.  The podcast was entitled "Creativity's Dark Side" and was about Professor Ariely's studies which demonstrated that the more creative a person was, in certain circumstances, the more likely they were to lie and cheat.  
Previously, the model used by behaviorists to explain why people lie and cheat was a risk/benefit model.  When faced with a situation where something was desired and could be obtained through dishonest means, the situation would be evaluated based on the assumption of how likely one would get caught weighed against the perceived gain for making the illicit attempt.  
Profession Ariely's study, though, pointed out a different model of thought at work.  In a situation where the individual thought they were free from being caught at lying about the number of questions they had solved for a monetary reward (they put their answer sheet through a shredder before giving their results, unaware that the "shredder" actually preserved their actual answers), the degree to which people cheated by inflating their score was more closely related to how well they scored on a creative index.  
The model that the professor came up with after his study to replace the risk/benefit model was one of conflicting desires going on inside each of us.  These are 1) To be able to think of ourselves as Good and Honest people.  And, 2) To gain the benefits of cheating.  The key, according to Profession Ariely, was the ability to rationalize.  In essence our ability to tell ourselves a story that would justify our desire to cheat and gain the perceived benefit while still allowing ourselves to think, "I am a good and honest fellow, I am."  
Creative people, it turns out, are better at telling themselves such stories.  At least according to the results the professor is gleaning from his work.  
Which puts me in a bit of a quandary.  As I mentioned above, I think of myself as being a creative individual.  More creative than the average person at least, let's say.  I also think of myself, to a similar degree, of being an honest person.  I would have difficulty counting the number of times I have gotten myself in trouble by giving an honest answer to a question put to me when a simply dissembling falsehood would have gotten me off the hook. 
Which leaves me to wonder...  Stipulating the good professor's results as accurate, I am either 1) Lying to myself as to how honest I really am; 2) A striking exception to his results or 3) Not as creative as I think I am.  
Before I take a stab at resolving this question, I did want to relay another thought that sprang tangentially from line of contemplation.  I remember, years ago, learning a phrase that has stuck with me for years.  It might have come from a panel on writing at some convention.  Or maybe a book on writing.  One about how to come up with story ideas.  Time has divorced the phrase from its original concept, but it has lived on in my brain, like a fragment of DNA from some infection, to be incorporated into the genome of my thoughts.  The phrase is this: 
The lies we wish were true.  
It is a way to turn real life experiences into stories, for one thing.  What better way to write a romance than to think about a time you were jilted by someone you were desperately in love with, and rewrite the story so this time the protagonist, who is really you in disguise, wins the object of their desire?  How many writers out there have taken someone that has pissed them off and made them the villain of a story where they are utterly destroyed for the evil that they are?   
Ok, Ok...  All you writers can put your hands down now.  
And not just writers.  We all day dream.  I certainly do.  We day dream what it would be like to have that special person in our lives.  Or what it would be like if we were young again and had a chance to do something over again.  Or, what we would do if we were infected by alien nanobots that would replicate and spread over the world to form an immense information network, allowing you to know what is going on anywhere and everywhere in the world, making you a truly Omniscient and Powerful beyond Imagination!!!
We all day dream about that, right...?  I mean...  I'm not the only...?
Ahem.  Anyway.  Lies we wish were true...  Yeah.  
There are a lot of them.  And most of them are probably out of reach or our control.  The "Think Peace" bumper stickers I see every now and then.  Why would we need to think it if it wasn't true? 
There was one part of Professor Ariely's results I haven't mentioned yet, but which I'll do now.  One factor impacting the degree to which creative people cheated has to do with the specificity of the rules governing the situation.  If a rule was clear and unequivocal, "you must do A after B," then the likelihood of lying or cheating was not as great as when it was open to interpretation.  "A is to be done when something approximating B to a certain degree is obtained in the previous result."  It is within this interpretation that our ability to rationalize, tell ourselves a pleasing little lie we very much want to be true, finds the opening that it needs to let us get what we want and still tell ourselves we didn't cheat to get it.  
A sudden thought occurs to me.  It could very well be that, at least for some of them at least, the lies we wish could be true are only out of reach because of some perceived rule we THINK cannot be broken.  If we could perceive the wiggle-room in the interpretation, just enough for a pleasing little rationalization to squeeze in and push open enough space for our preconception of ourselves and our desires to live in peace might be all we need to make them true. 
So maybe, I am the honest, upstanding person I want to believe myself to be.  And maybe I am just as creative as I think I am.  I am able to maintain this balance due to the fact that I am holding myself strictly in line, by being clear and unequivocal in what I will allow myself to do in any given circumstance.  It is this high degree of ethical thinking that allows me to be both.  
And if you believe that, let me tell you about this deal I know about for some terrific beachfront property in Arizona.  


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