You’ve been invited to lunch with Oprah as an acknowledgment of the work you have done for infants and children worldwide.
Oprah’s personal chef greets you and presents you with the menu, inviting you to peruse the art on the dining room walls and nibble hors d’oeuvres as you wait. Alone in the vast room with the priceless collection, you bend close to examine the texture of a large Jackson Pollock. A tiny chip of yellow paint falls from the painting to the floor. Did I do that, you wonder? You retrieve the chip, the size of your little fingernail, and try to locate its place on the painting. But in the wild confusion of colors there is just no way, even if you could figure out how to reattach it.
Just then, Oprah sweeps into the room with a great wide smile and open arms. Embarrassed, you slip the paint chip into your pocket. The lunch proceeds, just you and Oprah in the grand room, the conversation graciously centered on your achievements. As she gets up to depart after dessert, you screw up your courage to say something, but she is gone. Steering your car down Oprah’s sweeping drive, you wonder if anyone could ever notice a tiny paint chip missing from a large Jackson Pollock. You are anguished about what to do.
One of the most fascinating ideas about human nature to arise during the last quarter-century or so is this: If you think about any bit of human behavior or character — lying or honesty, say — you can come up with a reason why it is “adaptive.” Lying is adaptive behavior because, in the long-ago world of hunter-gatherer tribes, good liars scored more food and reproductive opportunities, so their genes got passed along at higher rate than nonliars, and so the tendency to lie got cooked into our DNA as an adaptation.
The same with honesty. The urge to be honest (i.e., not to lie), according to evolutionary psychology, is passed down genetically from our prehistoric ancestors. Members of a hunter-gatherer tribe who lacked the ability to trust each other starved for lack of a good team strategy for bringing down large game, while the team-working tribe members survived to pass on their DNA; 50,000 years later, as a consequence, modern humans have an urge to be honest in their dealings.
So, we are designed by evolution to be both honest and deceitful. Lying for competitive advantage over others, honesty to enhance our connection to others. And sometimes the two are in terrible conflict.
I can remember a painful experience of this kind when I was 5 years old, and I had slipped a pack of Necco wafers in my pocket as my mom and I walked out of the corner drugstore. Pasadena was different then — suburban, almost small townish — and stealing from Vera at the drugstore was basically like stealing from family. When Mom found the wrapper under my bed, she knew right away. And I was in an excruciating bind. My mother’s disappointment would be too great to bear if I told the truth. But the same would be true if I got caught in a lie, only now the deceit would be compounded. If I lied and got away with it, of course, I would escape with my mother’s love intact. Mom saw all of this, and asked me to think a few minutes before answering. She was sure I would do the right thing. I actually don’t remember the outcome, but I remember clearly the five minutes or so of excruciating mental anguish as I considered my options.
I see this same anguish often in clients who are keeping some secret from a family member or spouse. Just like I did at 5, they experience the consequences of being outed as almost unbearably painful. As intelligent adults, of course, they know they’ll survive whatever disappointment or loss of approval resulting from their revelation. They might even acknowledge that the hurt they inflict on their loved one will be better borne now — like the bandage ripped away from the wound — than enduring the festering guilt and fear that goes with keeping a secret. Yet nature (and culture, too) has imbued us with an urge to do the opposite — a powerful foreboding that makes admitting our deception seem impossible.
Anthropologist Brian Hare and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology recently did an experiment to see if chimps could employ deliberate deception in their efforts to get food. Hare gave each chimp an opportunity to head fake a grad student into overlooking some tasty treats that the chimp wanted for himself. Sure enough, the chimps gave a bravura performance, pretending not to notice the food, then sneaking back around to snag it when no one was looking. Chimps — our evolutionarily closest ancestor — tell lies, too, when it serves them. Lying and deceiving are rampant in animals, in fact, so we come by our lying honestly.
Another, unexpected, finding from Hare’s research is that, while the chimps are clearly capable of this kind of deception, they only rarely employ it. It’s easy to see why this is adaptive — if you deceive your troupe-mates every time, they will expect deceit and take measures to counteract it. Better to keep them off guard. But chimps’ brains don’t have language or logic like that, so there must be a feeling that tells them when to cheat and when to be honest. A compass of sorts.
No one can really know what it feels like to be a sneaking, lying chimp. But it makes sense to me that the feeling — like the behavior — might feel a lot like the human version: a combination of guilty fear and elation at getting away with it. Or that sick feeling inside when you know you’ve done something wrong and it’s about to be discovered — the feeling I had about the Necco wafers. Or the feeling you might have had driving home from Oprah’s. And what about the feeling of not lying when it would serve your interests to lie? Maybe a chimp version of moral superiority, or at least self-respect.
We’ll never know exactly how honesty feels to a chimp, but we are discovering some surprising things about honesty in humans. Joshua Greene, a Harvard researcher, recently published his findings about what’s going on in your brain as you decide whether to lie or tell the truth.
Researchers have pretty much figured out what areas in your brain get activated when you make decisions — Greene calls these areas collectively the “control centers.” Greene tempted students to lie while hooked up to a brain scanning device by telling them a little lie of his own. He told them the experiment was a test of their ESP abilities regarding a coin toss. After each toss, he asked them whether their prediction was right or wrong. If they reported that they had guessed right, they received money ($3 a pop). This would obviously be a pretty easy system to game. In fact, what Greene was measuring was how honest they were in their answers, calculated by measuring their results against probable outcomes.
What he discovered was not what he expected to find: While the control centers in the brains of students who lied a lot were activated during their lying, students who didn’t lie produced no extra activity in these places at all. Like any responsible researcher, Greene was hesitant to put too fine a point on these results, but he did raise the possibility that some people achieve a state of “moral grace” where the decision to be truthful requires no effort. Perhaps these people have such a strong sense of themselves as honest that decisions requiring honesty are automatic — like driving on the right side of the road.
But for many of us — and I’d include myself at 5 and myself today — the choice isn’t always so automatic. We are tempted when the cost of honesty seems outsized in relation to the small cost of staying silent — when a friendship, or our stellar reputation, or a painful amount of money is at stake. It’s precisely because we don’t exist in a state of moral grace that we still have the ability to make decisions with the awareness that we can do right or wrong, be kind or unkind, be present with each other in an authentic, to be responsible way that isn’t just about measuring the cost. To have honor.
Honor could be just the right word, here, I think. Honor lives outside the realm of biology, evolution, neuroscience or any other mechanistic understanding of human nature. Honor is a feeling that chimps can’t have, because it requires choice. It isn’t automatic and not particularly adaptive, at least not that I can see. You don’t get invited to Oprah’s for living honorably, and it won’t prevent you from getting egg on your face once in awhile.
Honor will give you guidance — but not certainty — when you do screw up badly or do something terrible to a loved one. It means staying true to the values you claim as yours, even when you fail to live up to them. It will allow you to accept the current situation, face it and make choices, accept the consequences and move on.
— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.