Thursday, October 18, 2012

In Group vs. Out Group thoughts...

“If an out-group member steps on my toes, I am more likely to say, “He is an inconsiderate person” though, with an in-group member I will describe the behavior exactly: “He stepped on my toes.” In contrast, an out-group member acting nicely is described specifically—“She gave me directions to the train station.”—while an in-group member is described as being “a helpful person”.The Folly of Fools, Robert Trivers, PhD Professor at Rutgers

In-Group vs. Out-Group behavior isn’t just found between differing religious/philosophical groups, differing socioeconomic backgrounds and differing ethnic groups, it is found in almost any setting where a “group” can form.  Consider how children “group up” in elementary and middle school. Consider the labels of “popular” and “unpopular” that children give to each other to serve as identification markers of who’s who.

 When you’re a child (between the ages of 8-16) and you are socially excluded from the popular students and their cliques, you start to make observations about group behavior. Of course, you, yourself, are not entirely dispassionate or free of bias, but you can definitely start to notice more things about group behavior from the outside. I would wager that these observations are more transparent and less affected by bias than from an in-group perspective. Why? Well, for one, you are less fraught by an emotional, irrational attachment to the group when you are on the outside. Being a loner, you have less reason to maintain cohesion with members.

As a child, what I noticed—often repeatedly---was how unfair and capricious the popular group members behaved and how inordinately arbitrary their responses were depending on who they were talking to.  For instance, I remember being talked to in a derogatory tone for asking a certain question, yet, if one of the in-group members asked a roughly similar question, they would elicit no such response. Instead, their questions were often acknowledged with kindness and a noticeable level of respect. Sometimes, the in-group member might try and rationalize that “my question was actually more stupid than the in-group member’s question” but in all reality, the difference of my question was insignificant compared to the difference in how they responded to me. The critical difference seemed to be that I wasn’t part of their group, thus, their response to me differed.

If you look carefully, you will start to notice this behavior exhibited by many people.  We all do it from time to time—irrationally treating our close friends’ ideas as superior to the stranger who proposes a similar or even identical idea. We might latch onto the “slight” difference in the stranger’s idea to justify our alliance to our in-group member (friend) instead.

 To observe this behavior among humans, pay special attention to how people respond to their friends ideas/behaviors/suggestions compared to how they respond to their acquaintances/strangers/homeless people/ people they’ve met for the first time/ comments, behaviors, and suggestions.   We all know that our close friends make mistakes—the question is, do we treat their mistakes with less harshness than we treat the similar mistakes of strangers or “out-group members”?

The in-group bias is one of my biggest pet-peeves because it interferes with truth and the acquisition of knowledge. It adds an extra layer on top of what is actually needed to examine. More specifically, the person—not what they’re saying—is factored into the equation. If your friend said something stupid and then a homeless guy said a similar thing, you may very likely treat the homeless guy with more derision than your friend—and that is irrational, not to mention obnoxious. 

 If you consider yourself a rational person your critique should be on what the person is saying—the objective facts being presented.  This is very hard to do.

Since the studies show that we are biased towards treating our friends and kin (group members) more kindly than outsiders, we must exert considerable effort to avoid doing this. We should always ask ourselves, is this individual being ridiculed because the facts he/she presents are anathema to current scientific analysis?... or because he/she isn’t a member of “our group” or maybe because we personally find this individual to be annoying?

 I would prefer that people treat each other equally. It doesn’t matter what they look like, whether they’re male or female, whether they are annoying or aloof, what they’re wearing, what they’re socioeconomic status is, whether or not they are friends with that person or what kind of cultural or ethnic background they have.  What matters is the claims that are made.  A person’s choice of words will always be unique, so what needs to be focused on are the specific claims presented.

If you don’t like the person you don’t like the person—but don’t try and twist it into a case of the other person (most-likely someone not in your group) being “stupid” or “unreasonable”--especially when your own group members are saying very similar things and receiving credit for very similar things.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Mechanics of Lying

“The results have been remarkably consistent. When it comes to lie detection, the public might as well simply toss a coin. It doesn’t matter whether you are male or female, young or old, few people are able to detect deception with any degree of reliability.”
          Quirkology, Richard Wiseman

I’ve never accepted---nay, I’ve resented the common sense understanding that “Liars can be spotted by their lack of eye contact or their nervous body language, mannerisms and/or posture”.  While I don’t want to make this into a case of “I knew it all along” I have to say in this particular area, I’ve always questioned this notion. Thankfully, the studies reveal that body language and lack of eye contact are NOT strategies that a typical liar will resort to or employ subconsciously.

In his book Quirkology, author Richard Wiseman highlights a study conducted by Psychologist Charles Bond.  Bond wanted to find out why so many people tend to inaccurately predict when someone is lying by determining what the typical person thinks of as the best strategy of how to detect a lie.  So, what does the average person think of as the best way to “detect lies”?

“He asked thousands of people from more than sixty countries to describe how they go about telling whether someone is lying. People’s answers are remarkably consistent. From Algeria to Argentina, Germany to Ghana, Pakistan to Paraguay, almost everyone thinks that liars tend to avert their eyes, nervously wave their hands around and shift about in their seats.”

In fact, when examining the liars in the study, it was found“…liars are just as likely to look you in the eye as truth-tellers, they don’t move their hands around nervously and they don’t shift in their seats (if anything, they are a little more static than truth-tellers).”

Bond’s conclusion is that most people are unable to distinguish lies from truths because they base their criteria for duplicity on behaviors that are not associated with real deception.

How, then, does one spot a liar? Bond suggests that there is actually a language of lying.  Anyone can control their body language and their quantity of eye contact; what is more difficult to control Bond says, is “the words we use and how we use them.”

“Liars often distance themselves psychologically from their falsehoods, and so they tend to include FEWER references to themselves and their feelings and their stories."

Lies tend to be SHORTER and LESS DETAILED than truths. If you are lying, you are more likely to incriminate yourself if you add too many details and speak on and on about your story.  While liars tend to speak BRIEFLY and are less detailed in their descriptions, they do tend to memorize certain necessary (non-random) details to maintain their lies—details that non-liars wouldn’t bother memorizing.
"The most reliable signs of lying are in people’s voices and in their unconscious choices of language: THE LACK OF KEY DETAILS in their descriptions, the increase in pauses and hesitations and avoiding the use of the word “I."

Cognitive Load?

Another interesting facet of lying involves the nature of cognitive load.  In the book “The Folly of Fools” author Robert Trivers posits that cognitive load is the most important variable playing a role in deception.  

What is meant by cognitive load?  In the activity of lying, the brain must consciously attend to many important operations at once.  This takes a considerable amount of effort. Think about it, to lie successfully you must be able to suggest a plausible alternative to the actual truth, speak in a tone and manner that convinces the other person, remember certain important details of your story as it unfolds, say things that do not contradict information that the listener is aware of and you must have your story memorized to recall when the need arises.

What about blinking and nervousness?

Triver’s mentions another study regarding blinking and its response to cognitive load when one is deceiving another: “Recent studies of deception suggest that we blink less when we are deceiving—cognitive load rules.  Also, contrary to usual expectation, people fidget less in deceptive situations. While someone is nervous they will fidget more, but cognitive load has the opposite effect. ”

 In other words, since the brain has so much more to attend to while lying, there is less effort put out to perform the actions of blinking and feeling nervous. Nervous energy often comes from undirected “extra energy” that one has. When you are concentrating, that extra energy is focused towards the activity at hand (i.e. lying) instead of transpiring into nervous behaviors.  

My personal “take-home” lesson from these books on spotting liars.

1.  Look for brevity in their response—an avoidance to elaborate on the subject being questioned about (liars would rather change the subject—people telling the truth don’t have a problem discussing the issue at hand and the more words they use won’t increase the chances of contradictions or incoherencies in their story).
 2. Look for fewer details in their descriptions
3. Look for fewer self references—liars tend to avoid the use of the word “I”
4. Look at the particular kind of language (and lack thereof), and language pattern that the person chooses most always trumps their particular body language and quantity of eye contact.
5. Liars blink LESS often while deceiving.

Books I refer to in blog post:

Book: Quirkology, 2007
Author: Richard Wiseman, PhD—Professor of Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire
Chapter: Trust Everyone but Always Cut the Cards (discussing lying)
Page: Starting at 57

Book: The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, 2011
Author: Robert Trivers, professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, Winner of Crafoord Prize
Chapter: The Evolutionary Logic of Self Deception
Page:  11

Also, please read “Lying” by Sam Harris. Fantastic read!