"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Instrumental Lying

The BBC (1.23.13) reports on ‘instrumental lying’ – tactical untruths to get children to behave:

The study, published in the International Journal of Psychology, examined the use of "instrumental lying" - and found that such tactically-deployed falsehoods were used by an overwhelming majority of parents in both the United States and China - based on interviews with about 200 families.

The most frequent example was parents threatening to leave children alone in public unless they behaved. Persuasion ranged from invoking the support of the tooth fairy to telling children they would go blind unless they ate particular vegetables.

An interesting concept, instrumental lying, and a welcome addition to the many other kinds of lying which are usually used to cover up a misdeed – e.g. Mark Sanford saying that he was walking the Appalachian Trail when he was actually visiting his Argentine firecracker; or John Edwards denying that he had a love child then compounding the lie by asking his underling to take the fall.  Since there is something purposeful in instrumental lying – i.e. the education of one’s children – it doesn’t seem wrong at all; and many people would not even consider putting it into the same moral bin as willful deceit.  Besides, young children have not yet matured enough to distinguish fantasy from reality, so the whole concept of a lie has not yet acquired salience or value.  They believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, after all, so why not invoke Pinocchio and tell them that if they lie, their noses will grow long and pointy just like his?

Many parents use Santa Claus to achieve their behavioral objectives, albeit short-term.  They recite the key lines from the popular Christmas song:

“He knows when you are sleeping.  He knows when you are awake.  He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

Parents need all the help they can get, so who can blame them for a little deceit to keep their little ankle-biters in line for a few weeks?  I have never heard of any parent using the Easter Bunny as hall monitor, but few children would want to risk the thought of no brightly-colored Easter eggs left in the hedges for them to find.

In our family, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were kept as benign, generous, and miraculous figures.  Why deliberately sully the magic of a jolly, red-suited Santa and his sleigh of reindeer coursing through the night sky, coming down the chimney and leaving presents? That would be the real sin, not perpetuating the fantasy lie.

As a child I remember only one instrumental lie spread by my parents – coffee will stunt your growth – but there were plenty of half-truths said less out of conviction than out of old wives tales.  “Don’t go outside with a wet head or you will catch pneumonia”, for example, or “Don’t sit in drafts because they will give you sciatica”. Too much ice cream would give me constipation, and not enough carrots would ruin my eyesight.  There were too many lies spread about masturbation to decide who actually said them, especially my parents.  Jerking off gave you warts, made you blind, gave you the palsy, addled the brain, and weakened your resolve.

I heard the best indirect injunction against masturbation in India. Loosely translated, the warning said” “You have only so many shots in your magazine, so use them wisely”.

Apparently parents resort to very twisted lies to control their children:

The most frequent example was parents threatening to leave children alone in public unless they behaved.

There were "untrue statements related to misbehavior", which included: ''If you don't behave, I will call the police," and: "If you don't quiet down and start behaving, the lady over there will be angry with you.''

Under the category of "Untrue statements related to leaving or staying" a parent was recorded as saying: "If you don't follow me, a kidnapper will come to kidnap you while I'm gone." (BBC)

I once took my young son to see the film Pinocchio. There is a scene in which  Pinocchio is shanghaied by Stromboli to be a puppet in a circus and is carted off in a wagon.  The animation shows Pinocchio looking out the back, staring into a dark rain, sad and distraught because he was being taken from his beloved father, Geppetto. My son started to cry, and as many times as I had seen and loved this great Disney classic as an adult, I had never realized how painful this scene of loss must be to a child. Once I saw Pinocchio’s journey through a child’s eyes, and realized how his death to save his father would be so saddening and disconsolately terrifying to a child, did I realize what the fear of separation and loss must be.

Telling lies of kidnapping, police abduction and parental abandonment are cruel and indefensible.

Under the category of "Untrue statements related to leaving or staying" a parent was recorded as saying: "If you don't follow me, a kidnapper will come to kidnap you while I'm gone."

There were also lies motivated by protecting a child's feelings - labeled as "Untrue statements related to positive feelings."

This included the optimistic: "Your pet went to live on your uncle's farm where he will have more space to run around." (BBC)

Once, when we vacationed in Italy for the summer and rented an old farmhouse in Tuscany, we rented a rabbit as a pet for our children, an animal raised along with chickens and ducks by a local farmer.  When it was time to go back to the United States and to return the rented rabbit, my son asked what would happen to Buns.  “Mr. Vanni will give him a good home”, I lied.  “He will be very happy with all his bunny friends”. 

My daughter who was two years older gave me a quizzical look.  She had seen the skinned rabbits lined up in the butcher shop with only little tufts of hair left around their paws, and knew exactly what was going to happen to Buns.  I changed the subject before she could expose my lie.

I used to tease my children all the time and make up implausible but possible stories.  I told myself that these untruths were educational tools to help them become discerning, analytical adults; but my children saw it differently.  One summer we were on an interminable road trip, and a large RV passed us slowly.  It was enormous, bus-long, with railings on the roof.  “What’s up there, Daddy?”, asked my daughter. 

“A swimming pool”, I said.  “These big campers have heated pools on their roofs so that children can have fun and not be bored on long trips”. 

Many weeks later, when we were on an upper level of an outdoor parking lot, my daughter looked down on a big RV, similar to the one that had passed us on the road.  There was of course no swimming pool on the roof, just junk – extra bicycles, beach chairs, and umbrellas.  “You lied to us”, said my daughter angrily.  I replied that I had not lied, but had just made up the story.  “No”, she insisted.  “You lied!”.

Sissela Bok wrote Lying and in it explored the moral and ethical dimensions of lying and how the practice, although common, was never justified.  She quotes Charles Fried:

A good man does not lie. It is this intuition which brings lying so naturally within the domain of things categorically wrong. Yet many lies do little if any harm, and some lies do real good. How are we to account for this stringent judgment on lying, particularly in face of the possible trivial, if not positively beneficial, consequences of lying? (Right and Wrong, 1978)

Robert Fullinwider (www.infed.org) summarizes Bok’s “Theory of Veracity”, a very strong moral presumption against lying:

What, she asks you, would it be like to live in a world in which truth-telling was not the common practice? In such a world, you could never trust anything you were told or anything you read. You would have to find out everything for yourself, first-hand. You would have to invest enormous amounts of your time to find out the simplest matters. In fact, you probably couldn't even find out the simplest matters: in a world without trust, you could never acquire the education you need to find out anything for yourself, since such an education depends upon your taking the word of what you read in your lesson books. A moment's reflection of this sort, says Bok, makes it crystal clear that you benefit enormously by living in a world in which a great deal of trust exists – a world in which the practice of truth-telling is widespread. All the important things you want to do in life are made possible by pervasive trust.

There is but one definition of a lie:

What is a lie? A lie is a statement, believed by the liar to be false, made to another person with the intention that the person be deceived by the statement. This is the definition used by Sissela Bok and it has antecedents as far back as St. Augustine.

However, there are so many shades of lying (white lies, tales of fantasy, half-truths, minor deceptions) and so many compelling cases for benign lies (withholding a diagnosis of terminal cancer, “Mommy will be back soon”, or “The weather will probably clear”) that most people lie without even thinking twice about it.  Yet, as Bok observes, such pervasive lying is corrosive, and ultimately destructive.

Parents should indeed give the question of lying a second thought; or at least to distinguish between malicious deception and harmless, teasing fictions.  No one has even tried to show a correlation between ‘instrumental lying’ to children and their eventual veracity; but that misses the point. Lying can hurt children.  It sets a bad example – that lying is an acceptable way of enforcing volition; and, as Bok suggests, it contributes to a world in which the child’s first instinct is to wonder what is true.

The study raises the longer-term issue of the impact on families of such opportunistic approaches to the truth. It suggests it could influence family relationships as children get older.

Researchers concluded that this raises "important moral questions for parents about when, if ever, parental lying is justified". (BBC)

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