Saturday, February 6, 2010

Falsehoods

Friend of thongcharm, who I like to think of as the wild anthropologist, recently pointed out the merits of the Steve Wilkos show. I am rarely available at 11am to watch extremely bad television, but was on an airplane recently and tuned in (God Bless JetBlue, despite this week of horrific technical difficulties). Steve was the most charismatic of the Jerry Springer bodyguards, who routinely broke up fights with a certain panache. He was given his own program with much the same format as Jerry, but with a few simplifying edits:

a) Hitters can't be Sitters. If you punched anyone, you don't get a chair. 
b) Everything is determined by lie detector test.

This makes truth and falsehood fairly straightforward. Take a test. Come on the show. Rant like a madman. Hear the results. Done.

The episode I watched involved a man accusing his wife of being a sideline prostitute to support her coke habit. His evidence was that she often had a runny nose. Further, he said that she brought these Johns into their home after he fell asleep, and that she had drugged him through his food to ensure he wouldn't wake up during the night. He had placed water on the floor in the entryway, and woke up (apparently with well-timed sleeping potions) first to check for footprints, which he had seen. Allegedly. 

His wife, for her side, said that this man was basically a paranoid insane person. And that she was getting sick of it. For whatever it's worth, she did not strike me as a coke addict. What was clear was that stress (or coke) apparently shrank her badonkadonk, much to his chagrin.

It was classic. I didn't get to see the end, which almost makes it better. The lie detector was meant to resolve the truth of the matter. 

From what I understand, lie detectors function by creating a baseline of key indicators like skin temperature, heart rate, etc, and then asking you to speak truths and lies. Lies are meant to deviate from the baseline, because they cause people to have elevated heart rate, skin reactions, and so on. We can debate whether these tests are foolproof and whether they can be beat. But, I'm willing to bet that for the majority of people in the majority of cases, they provide a reasonable indicator.

Having said that, there is one glaring challenge. What if you don't think you're lying?  When asked "have you had an extramarital affair?" most people either have or have not, and editing an entire romp in the hay out of your memory requires some serious amnesia. But, what if I were asked to say "I will become a runway model next year."  If I truly believed that, I would not be lying. If I'm not lying, I wont exhibit the physical signs of lying. 

We tend to pride ourselves, as a collective, on being able to determine if someone is lying to us. But, it is very hard to tell when someone is telling you a truth they believe, which happens to be false. With some people's almost infinite ability to be optimistic, have "happy eyes and ears," or see what they want to see, it's very hard to call their statements a bald-face lie. Rather, they are misinterpreting reality. 

Maybe we should be less concerned with identifying liars, and more concerned with identifying people whose interpretations of reality are very distinct from our own.

1 comment:

the wild linguistic anthropothologist said...

You're right--Steve's biggest appeal is his ability to create a universe in which everything is easily interpreted. By disregarding the imprecision of human language and the vagaries of interpretation, he strong-arms 'truth' into a binary opposition in a manner that few of us can achieve in real life.

Having said that, the wife passed the lie detector test--she was not a magical prostitute taking invisible drugs. The husband couldn't accept this and offered her the chance to apologize anyway. She left him right after the last commercial break.