Monday, July 20, 2015

Kidding Ourselves

I recently had the pleasure of playing a game called Liar's Poker with two people whom I know well. Together with a family friend, we played a few rounds of friendly card games, Liar's Poker being the funnest of them all: assuming laughter is our measure of agreed-upon consensus. 

Liar's Poker is a delightful game of kidding ourselves and kidding others. Only, the best liar's win! Consistently, that is ... 

On occasion us literal folk "Get Lucky!"

What does luck have to do with winning? 

Jerome K. Jerome once said, "It is always the best policy to tell the truth, unless, of course, you are an exceptionally good liar." 

Bravo, Old Chap!

Couldn't have said it better, myself!

As much as we'd ALL like to think of ourselves as "good liars" the reality is, 

"It is hard to be a good liar, even when it comes to your own intentions, which only you can verify." 

[Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, pg. 421; Kidding Ourselves].

Occasionally lying is about luck. After all when someone "pulls off" a lie, they often feel "lucky" that no one was paying close enough attention. In a game of paying close attention to what one is doing in relation to other, it is simultaneously the art of paying attention to what other's are doing. No easy task depending upon the mindset. 

Closely related behind luck lies a mindset. The mind that pays more attention to itself -vs- the mind that pays more attention to others. 

Emotionally charged, highly complex, high intensity people generally pay more attention to their own thoughts, with the thoughts of others providing them with a never-ending stream of fodder for analytical self-examination. 

The result of this Descartian-like examination is a direct projection of the individual's primary or core objective; be that "have fun in life" ... "give to others" ... or "sit back and take it all in" ... and then do - or don't do - something about it. 

It is one of these primary motivators which fuels the person's emotional system, the feel-good or feel-bad modulator of whether or not we have achieved our goal (relates to our perception of reward and punishment). 

Lying well is equally distributed across the range of personality types, with quiet people making the best liars. Quiet people are perpetually overlooked, even by those closest to them; those who generally do most of the talking. 

The persons doing most of the listening learn the most. Those who do most of the talking are often times their subjects; unless they're not actually paying attention. Some quiet individuals are just as focused on themselves as are their more voiceterous counterparts. These masters of letting others take center stage quietly and un-perceptively disappear into their own worlds while others rattle on. 

The hidden declarations behind those things we don't intentionally share are as visible as the things we do share - to someone who is paying close attention. The Reader, like the quiet person, considers the author or speaker in relation to the penning or rhetoric. Even if the author or speaker thinks him or herself removed from the subject matter at hand, the existence of the link itself serves as an indicator of relation, irrespective the density of the thread connecting the two - with the connecting thread precisely matching our perception of self in relation to other. 

Gorgeous Bad Boy of Neuroscience
Steven Pinker

According to Steven Pinker, intentions come from emotions, and emotions have evolved displays on our faces and bodies. He goes on to say that unless you're a master of the Stanislavsky method, you will have trouble faking them; in fact, they've probably evolved because they were hard to fake. 

Expressionism is a quality of inner experience, with the emotions or expressive qualities communicated through emphasis and distortion, which can be found in the below artwork by Charles Lebrun (French, 1619-1690), Expressions of the Spirit's Passions, c. 1663, engraving.

Lying is no easy task. In fact, it's downright exhausting - more so if it is with someone whom we are close because they are more familiar with our responses. 

In this respect, Liar's Poker is a fascinating game to play with others. To see if you can recognize the telltale markers of elevated breathing, half-smiles, and those little twinkles someone gets in their eye when they're being playful. This is what has attracted generations of people to card games. 

Just as *an artist must say without saying, so too a liar must distort their hardwired responses. These hardwired responses are the rationale behind polygraphs, the so-called lie detectors. They are also the rationale those highly skilled people evolved in lie detection utilize. The more often the utilize it, the more so-called Machiavellian we consider them. 

Analytical individuals skilled in observation and analysis make the best liars. Natural liars are those individuals who quickly dispose themselves to mimicry. These human mimickers learn to utilize mimicry as their form of communication. Mimicry slows things down to a respectable pace, one conducive of deeper examination. 

In many religions lying is a BIG NO-NO. To whatever philosophical belief system one ascribes, lying is universally recognized as something we shouldn't do. The notion of "right" and "wrong" are associated with reward and punishment. With all of life's experiences reinforcing this concept from birth forward, it is no wonder there is so much to learn by playing games where kidding and concealing take center stage. In terms of polite social interaction, Liar's Game is very provocative. 

For those forever trumped by their own knowledge, there's the annoying fact that some propositions logically entail others. These poor beings are essentially in possession of knowledge they must continually assess in terms of its relevance or value to a given interaction. 

One might respond to this discriminating challenge with resentment, in particular if one leans toward divergent interactions; however, one might also respond to this experience as an invitation to play, an opportunity to learn more by joining in someone else's sandbox to play the game from another's point of view. 

Games that allow us the opportunity to kid ourselves and kid others heighten our ability to recognize our self in relation to other. Independent of where we are in relation to our understanding of self in relation to other, opportunities for further understanding of our intentions and the intentions of others emerge. From the delightfully surprising information we gleam from the experience to the new strategies we develop to the bigger pictures we envision, games of self deception allow us to examine the theories we hold, conscious and subconscious, alike. 

The conscious mind sometimes hides the truth from itself in order to hide truth from others. The result is that truth is hidden from our own examination. These hidden truths sometimes serve us well, but not always. 

If one wishes to leave their lives up to chance or luck, then by all means, enjoy the unveiling, one card at a time. 

If you're the type of person who wishes to look at the hand you're holding prior to betting, or if you're a person playing to win, the ego's defense mechanism (such as repression, projection, denial, and rationalization - the most cunning human mechanism) is your mentor. For these people truth is useful. In this mindset truth is registered as a "utility" and walled off from the parts that interact with others. 

No wonder the notion of Freud and the subconscious play center stage. When one is more inclined toward disbelief and skepticism, one resonates with skeptics like George Orwell and cynics like George Castanza. For these types of individuals, there is always a hidden secret to be exposed. What one does with that is entirely a matter of taste. 

Then there are those people who good-hearted, well-meaning people who regularly look under the surface. How far they perceived can only be assumed by their actions. Someone who resonates with the above quote might resonate for a variety of reasons, while others might say something like: 

There are some individuals who still think of others as a potential playmates or future best friends. These individuals retain larger portions of that early childhood playground brain in relation to others where there is no need for lying, as it only gets in the way of having a good time. 

But what about those phenomenologists, you ask? 

Phenomenology inclines one to seek out wisdom writings, the thoughts of great statesman, writer-thinkers, lovers of wisdom, poets, and enlightenment thinkers ...such as Abraham Lincoln, Cicero, Plato, Octavio Paz and Voltaire. 

But what about François La Rochefoucauld? Didn't he say that, "Our enemies' opinion of us comes closer to the truth than our own." 

Maybe what Rochefoucaul was really saying was that he thought about others so much that he presumed they thought a lot about him, just as often. 

Not from what I've observed

In reality, people spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking about themselves - not others. Ludwig Wittgenstein said that, 

"If there were a verb meaning "to believe falsely," it would not have any significant first person, present indicative." 

What do you think, Mr. Twain?  

Mark Twain told us that there was one surefire way to find out if a man is honest: 

Ask him, if he says yes, you know he's crooked.

According to Twainian logic, 
I'm crooked

I didn't realized I was "crooked" - or did I? 

You see, that's just it. It is difficult to see clearly the emotions without first filtering them through our own lens, without examining them in relation to how we perceive the world. We can only know of another's intentions according to our own perception and our belief about where others are in relation to our perception, be it hidden or revealed. 

Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has shown that the brain blithely weaves false explanations about its notions. In terms of how the brain is wired, we can be actively utilizing one side of our brain without the other side being aware of it. This anomaly is best understood when considering the split-brain patients who have their cerebral hemispheres surgically disconnected as a treatment for epilepsy. 

Hundreds of experiments in social psychology tell us that people present themselves to others by putting themselves in the best possible light. 

Stepford Wives

A reader of Garrison Keillor would describe the fictitious community of Stepford as one of those places "where the women are good-looking, the men are smart, and all the children are above average." 

Sounds like Silicon Valley...

Most people consider themselves above average in the traits they value most: leadership, sophistication, athletic prowess, driving skills, physical appeal or beauty. 

When these people play Liar's Game they attribute their success to their own skill and their failures to the luck of the draw or to their idyllic adherence to honesty. When they are fooled by a game or experiment, they consider it a compliment to their singularly focused goodness, to their true nature, which is always registering due north.

For these people there is no contradiction between "It's hard to lie" and the proposition "I didn't realize lying was so cunning." 

According to Eliot Aronson these people doctor their beliefs in order to contradict the proposition "I am nice and in control." 

Besides, who would want to believe otherwise? Doing so would be blatant evidence of otherwise, that we are not as beneficent and effective as we would like people to think. The urge to reduce the distinction is the urge to get our stories straight. 

It's one thing to grasp the deception of others, it's another to glimpse our own. There are moments in the game when little nerves are activated. If everyone knows when we are lying, how can we possibly keep our private thoughts private? 

Maybe we can't. Maybe we should actually play Liar's Game to teach ourselves how not to lie rather than to hone our ability to successfully do so ... focusing on how not to subconsciously deceive others, and how not to accept that which we have not fully examined. 

Cue Descartes. 

Over time, our attitudes about lying evolve. Those things we perceive as being full of innuendo, when reconsidered, sound gentler, even reasonable. Notably our attitudes are always biased and continually shifting. 

Shifting through our biases is no easy task, as Descartes so eloquently and with great insight reminds us: 

  • Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for every one thinks of himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess. 

  • The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations. 

  • I know how very liable we are to delusion in what relates to ourselves, and also how much of the judgments of our friends are suspected when given in our favor. 

  • They who set themselves to give precepts must of course regard themselves as possessed of greater skill than those to whom they prescribe. 

  • I was convinced that I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance. 

  • The grace of fable stirs the mind. Eloquence has incomparable force and beauty. 

  • Philosophy affords the means of discoursing with an appearance of truth on all matters, and commands the admiration of the more simple. 

  • It is useful to know something of the manners of different nations, that we may be enabled to form a more correct judgment regarding our own, and be prevented from thinking that everything contrary to our customs is ridiculous and irrational - a conclusion usually come to by those whose experience has been limited to their own country. 

  • On the other hand, when too much time is occupied in traveling, we become strangers to our own native country. 

  • Those in whom the faculty of reason is predominant, and who most skillfully dispose their thoughts with a view to render them clear and intelligible, are always the best able to persuade others of the truth of what they lay down. 

Not all disposed as such exercise this skill for personal gain

  • There is not a single matter in philosophy that is not still in dispute, and nothing, therefore, is above doubt. 

  • Considering the number of conflicting opinions touching a single matter, how can only one be true? 

  • I had always a most earnest desire to know how to distinguish the true from the false, in order that I might be able clearly to discriminate the right path in life, and proceed in it with confidence. 

  • I at length resolved to make myself an object of study, and to employ all the powers of my mind in choosing the paths I ought to follow. 

Other than those Siren's of discourse, the caprice of human interaction, the patterns of human behavior that trend, the little or not moderation of thought that lies behind many human interactions, what contributes to the complexity of our minds and the games we play is precisely a relation to how we perceive the world, how we kid ourselves and others into thinking one thing when sometimes we are thinking about an entirely different matter altogether. 

But we are not all perpetual dupes of our own chicanery. While it is true that many buy into their own hand, not all are inefficient in examination, in particular examination in relation to other. 

Games of trickery also allow us to act out new roles. To purposely experience those things we (think we) don't employ, vacillating between cluelessness and cunningness. 

The nonjudgmental, noncompetitive, nonmaterialistic, affectionate, honest, unmanipulative, unaggressive, communal, and unconcerned with status delight in games of trickery much like how they delight in moon-gazing, music, and dancing. There's a special freedom that goes along with acting out harmless social experiments. 

Doing so offers us a glimpse into our higher reasoning. It liberates us with new thoughts, and renews our relationship with self. The enduring wholeness and beauty of games enables us to better understand ourselves in relation to society, nature, and self. 

Each hand greets us with a new opportunity to have a conversation with one of our ideals, and is perhaps reminiscent of the free-love communes of nineteenth-century America, the socialist utopias of the twentieth century, the practice of Bohemianism, and all those other movements accumulating hordes of young seekers of truth and beauty. 

Human universals are found in all cultures. They include prestige and status, inequality of power and wealth, property, inheritance, reciprocity, punishment, modesty, regulations, preferences for partners, divisions of labor by group, hostility to other groups and conflicts within the group. The scale of plots play out with every new shuffle of the deck. 

Our stories of triumph and conflict forever retold by history's winners and losers. But this does not mean that losers lose. It merely means that there is a territorial imperative associated with each experience, and throughout life we hold and consider many so called perspectives. 

Natural selection invites cooperation and generosity just as often as it engineers problems. The difficulty of seeing the hand in play is directly related to our on-board computer, the sophisticated programs we have continually running in the background. 

The mind computes and engineers by natural selection, our motives for playing are tailored as much by truth as they are by falsehoods. Liar's poker is one of those social games, that while seemingly straightforward, invites powerful agents of examination. 

Once we know how to play, one we recognize how we relate to and portray ourselves to others, we can better conduct ourselves according to our core or primary motivation; be that "have fun in life" ... "give to others" ... or "sit back and take it all in" ... and then do - or don't do - something about it. 

It's one thing to play the game,
it's quite another to play again.

*Duke Ellington (1899-1974), American Jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader. 

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