Joel: Joel in Gatineau, Quebec. Radiolab is support by TransferWise, the cheaper way to send money internationally. The Economist says Transfer Wise takes a machete to the hefty fees banks charge, but don't take their word for it. More than four million people are already saving. Sign up at transferwise.com/podcast or download the app.
Olivia Fritz: This is Olivia Fritz from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Radiolab is supported by Math for America. Here's a brain teaser, ever wonder where the best math and science teachers across New York City come together to lead, learn, and share? MFA fellowships inspire great teachers to stay in the classroom. Learn about the power of the MFA community at mathforamerica.org.
Jad Abumrad: Hello I'm Jad.
Robert Krulwich: And I'm Robert.
Jad Abumrad: And this is Radiolab. Today on our program, the topic is liars.
Robert Krulwich: All kinds of liars. And now it's time for the liar, we haven't yet mentioned. A liar which might actually be one very familiar to you, Jad. This is the self-deceiver.
Jad Abumrad: Hey, what do you mean?
Robert Krulwich: Somebody who lies, not to others but actually who lies to one's self if you get my drift [crosstalk 00:01:13].
Jad Abumrad: Thanks, thanks Krulwich. Thanks a lot. Anyhow, what does that even mean, to lie to one's self? How would you actually [crosstalk]
Robert Krulwich: Well, it's tricky. Let me give you a classic example. Let's say that you are madly in love with somebody.
Jad Abumrad: To who?
Robert Krulwich: Just conjure up whoever you know I don't know who.
Jad Abumrad: Okay.
Robert Krulwich: So now you're in love with her and strange things start to happen. You're at home, the phone rings, you pick it up.
Jad Abumrad: Hello?
Robert Krulwich: And the person on the other end of the line is breathing and then ... hangs up.
Robert Krulwich: Next, she's suddenly staying late at the office, many nights a week. Didn't used to.
Speaker 5: Jad, honey I've gotta work late tonight again. Don't wait up.
Robert Krulwich: Then your friends tell you that they see this woman [crosstalk 00:01:52].
Jad Abumrad: So who's this guy?
Robert Krulwich: In the company of another man.
Jad Abumrad: Does she have a brother maybe?
Robert Krulwich: Repeatedly.
Jad Abumrad: Dude. C'mon.
Robert Krulwich: In short, all the signs are there and yet despite the evidence, you Jad continue to believe, and I mean you truly truly believe that the woman is being faithful.
Jad Abumrad: Well maybe in this little scenario that you've created for me, I'm just stupid or clueless.
Robert Krulwich: Well I'm not gonna take that away from you, I'm not but in this case though for the sake of argument, let's say you're not clueless.
Jad Abumrad: Okay.
Robert Krulwich: Let's say you believe both these things in some different compartments of your head. You believe that she is faithful and at the very same time you know what's really going on here.
Joanna Starek: What self deception really is is that you have two contradictory beliefs. And you hold them at the same time, and you allow one of them into consciousness, and that you have a motivation for allowing one of them into consciousness.
Robert Krulwich: That's Joanna Starek, she's a psychologist and we're gonna hear more from her later.
Jad Abumrad: All right. So how does that work then?
Robert Krulwich: What?
Jad Abumrad: What you just said. To have two contradictory thoughts in your brain at the same time and yet you're only lettin' in one.
Robert Krulwich: Well there's an experiment on this subject kind of an interesting one. What?
Jad Abumrad: Another experiment?
Robert Krulwich: [crosstalk] Introduce you to the two guys who did it. It's ve ... okay?
Harold Sackheim: I'm Harold Sackheim. I'm a professor in the departments in psychiatry and radiology at Columbia University.
Ruben Gur: Okay. My name is Ruben Gur. I'm a neuropsychologist by training.
Robert Krulwich: Harold Sackheim and Ruben Gur. They are friends. They met back in 1974.
Ruben Gur: [crosstalk] to seventy-three.
Robert Krulwich: Ah make that seventy-three. One was a grad student, that would be Harold. One was a professor, that's Gur [crosstalk 00:03:29].
Ruben Gur: Yeah and we started talking and [crosstalk 00:03:31].
Harold Sackheim: To make a long story short, we did a couple of experiments.
Harold Sackheim: In one of them, we played clips of one's own voice and the voices of other people [crosstalk 00:03:41].
Robert Krulwich: Here's the experiment. You the subject are sitting in a room k?
Jad Abumrad: All right.
Robert Krulwich: And we're gonna give you a big red button and you can press it.
Jad Abumrad: Okay. I press the button.
Robert Krulwich: Not yet.
Jad Abumrad: Oh sorry.
Robert Krulwich: And out of the speakers in this room, you're going to hear ten different voices [crosstalk 00:03:55].
Harold Sackheim: And everybody was saying the same thing. The words were the same.
Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. [crosstalk 00:04:01].
Robert Krulwich: And one of the voices in the group, one of the many, is you Jad. You saying [crosstalk]
Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. [crosstalk 00:04:07].
Robert Krulwich: Right there! That was you.
Robert Krulwich: Now when you here yourself saying come, press the button.
Harold Sackheim: Press a button. Me? Or not me?
Robert Krulwich: When you hear your own voice.
Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. [crosstalk 00:04:15].
Jad Abumrad: So one of these is mine?
Robert Krulwich: Yeah.
Jad Abumrad: All right [crosstalk 00:04:18].
Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. [crosstalk 00:04:22].
Jad Abumrad: No. Nope. Yes! [crosstalk 00:04:23].
Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here [crosstalk 00:04:23].
Jad Abumrad: Not me, not me, not me, not me [crosstalk 00:04:26].
Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. [crosstalk 00:04:29].
Jad Abumrad: Me! I think [crosstalk 00:04:29].
Voices: Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. [crosstalk 00:04:29].
Jad Abumrad: Not me, not me, not me [crosstalk 00:04:29]. I don't know. Me! Not me [crosstalk 00:04:30].
Robert Krulwich: Now if you listen very closely it's gonna be in three, two, that's it [crosstalk 00:04:35].
Jad Abumrad: Not me, not me, not me [crosstalk 00:04:37].
Robert Krulwich: He missed it [crosstalk 00:04:38].
Jad Abumrad: This is hard.
Robert Krulwich: You're right. And the people in Harold's study, many of them didn't do too well either.
Jad Abumrad: So they had some trouble recognizing their own voice?
Jad Abumrad: All right. Bring it home Robert, what's the point of this?
Robert Krulwich: Here's what I didn't tell you. When they did this experiment in real life, the real subjects in addition to having the little pusher button thing that we gave you, they also had diodes all over their body measuring [crosstalk 00:04:57].
Harold Sackheim: We recorded their physiology [crosstalk 00:04:58].
Robert Krulwich: Perspiration [crosstalk 00:04:59].
Ruben Gur: Sweating, heart rate [crosstalk 00:05:00].
Robert Krulwich: Heartbeat, stuff like that.
Ruben Gur: Blood pressure [crosstalk 00:05:02].
Robert Krulwich: And what they found is that when a person failed to recognize his or her voice nevertheless, they're bodies, the sweat, the heartbeat [crosstalk 00:05:10].
Harold Sackheim: Most often the body's going "ehhhhh" [crosstalk 00:05:12].
Robert Krulwich: Their bodies seemed to notice their voices even though their conscious minds missed the voices. The body knew, the conscious mind didn't. Two thoughts in the same person [crosstalk]
Jad Abumrad: Oh c'mon no. I mean all right I'll give it to you. That's kind of interesting.
Robert Krulwich: Thank you very much.
Jad Abumrad: But that is not the same thing as lying.
Robert Krulwich: Well we're just starting here. Now at least grant me this. You can have two different experiences simultaneously.
Jad Abumrad: Yes, okay I grant that you've just [crosstalk 00:05:38].
Robert Krulwich: Okay. So we're on our way, we're on our way. Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: Okay. Step two. Harold and Ruben decide to leave the laboratory and go to a bar.
Ruben Gur: Yeah I believe it was Smokey Joe's.
Robert Krulwich: Just to sort of talk things over.
Ruben Gur: Kick back a bit.
Robert Krulwich: And to deal with your very question. So let's really get to core of what lying to yourself is about.
Ruben Gur: Exactly.
Robert Krulwich: So they're in the bar and they're gettin' kinda drunk.
Harold Sackheim: We were probably pretty drunk.
Robert Krulwich: And Ruben proposes "we need to come up with some way to get test subjects to have one thought and instantly have a contradictory thought. Maybe we could do that with embarrassment. Maybe we could embarrass them into having two thoughts at the same time."
Ruben Gur: And that yes, and at some point I said "let's ask people question" [crosstalk 00:06:16].
Robert Krulwich: Questions so [crosstalk 00:06:17].
Harold Sackheim: So threatening [crosstalk 00:06:18].
Robert Krulwich: So uncomfortable that you don't wanna tell the truth about them.
Jad Abumrad: What questions would those be?
Robert Krulwich: Well [crosstalk 00:06:23].
Harold Sackheim: We had to get down and dirty.
Robert Krulwich: They got drunker and drunker and drunker, and they came up with a whole bunch of 'em.
Ruben Gur: Started writing them down. [crosstalk] right there in the bar on a napkin.
Robert Krulwich: We were curious, so we took their questions off the napkin so to speak, and we brought them out on the street.
Speaker 10: Can I ask you some questions while you're waiting?
Speaker 11: Yeah sure.
Robert Krulwich: So wh [crosstalk 00:06:39].
Speaker 12: Have you ever doubted your sexual adequacy?
Robert Krulwich: Ohhhh.
Speaker 12: No.
Robert Krulwich: And [crosstalk 00:06:43].
Speaker 13: Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: Another.
Speaker 14: Have you ever enjoyed your bowel movements?
Speaker 15: Enjoyed my bowel movements?
Speaker 14: Yeah.
Speaker 16: I think most normal people do.
Speaker 17: No.
Robert Krulwich: Here's another.
Speaker 18: Have you ever thought of committing suicide to get back at somebody?
Jad Abumrad: Yikes.
Speaker 19: No.
Robert Krulwich: And another.
Speaker 20: [crosstalk] Have you ever wanted to rape or be raped by someone?
Speaker 21: [crosstalk] Have you ever wanted to rape or be raped by somebody?
Speaker 22: Come again? No.
Speaker 23: No.
Speaker 24: No.
Speaker 25: Absolutely not.
Speaker 26: No.
Speaker 27: Oh no.
Speaker 28: Well yeah.
Jad Abumrad: Have I what?
Robert Krulwich: Jad.
Jad Abumrad: What kinda question is that?
Robert Krulwich: If you answered no to any of those questions. They would say that you're lying to yourself.
Jad Abumrad: So they are assuming then that everybody enjoys their bowel movements secretly, everyone secretly has rape fantasies [crosstalk 00:07:21].
Robert Krulwich: That is what they are assuming.
Harold Sackheim: Yes, it was a supposition that these things are universal truths. But it was a supposition that seemed to work.
Robert Krulwich: Because that night at the bar, Harold and Ruben stumbled across something. It turns out that how you answer those questions, predicts some very surprising things about the kind of person you are. About the course of your whole life. First of all, remember that previous study we talked about with the voices?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: It just so happens that the people who were very bad at the voice test, failed the voice test, they were the very same people who did very badly on the embarrassing questionnaire test. They didn't want to admit to stuff.
Speaker 29: Have you ever wanted to rape or be raped by somebody? No not at all.
Robert Krulwich: However, when other scientists got ahold of Harold and Ruben's questionnaire, and they used it a lot in lots of situations [crosstalk 00:08:11].
Harold Sackheim: Speaking of the thousands and thousands of [crosstalk 00:08:13].
Robert Krulwich: They dug deeper into the question of what do these people have trouble with truthiness? What happens to them? [crosstalk] in life you know?
Jad Abumrad: Yeah. And?
Robert Krulwich: And it turns out that they do a whole lot better in all kinds [crosstalk 00:08:25].
Jad Abumrad: Better?
Robert Krulwich: Yes, better. Better. Better. Better. In all kinds of things.
Jad Abumrad: Like what?
Robert Krulwich: A whole lot of stuff.
Jad Abumrad: Like?
Robert Krulwich: Can we now say by the way that these people are liars?
Jad Abumrad: I'm not quite ready to say that but okay fine.
Robert Krulwich: All right [crosstalk 00:08:36].
Jad Abumrad: All right let's just call them liars. And can you please tell me what the hell you're talking about. What sorts of things did they do better at?
Robert Krulwich: Well just to start, let me introduce you to someone.
Joanna Starek: Okay. My name is Joanna Starek. And I'm a psychologist.
Robert Krulwich: Psychologist and athlete.
Joanna Starek: I was actually a swimmer. I was a competitive swimmer at Colgate University. And I think one of the questions that I was really interested in is how can you have two people who have the same physiological capacity. And then one person over and over again would consistently win or outperform the other.
Robert Krulwich: Joanna had heard about Harold and Ruben's questionnaire, so she and her research partner, Caroline Keating, decided to give the embarrassing question questionnaire to the swim team.
Joanna Starek: Yes.
Robert Krulwich: Just to see what they'd find.
Joanna Starek: So we gave them that questionnaire at the beginning of the season, and then they trained, trying to qualify for the Eastern Athletic Conference Championship.
Robert Krulwich: That's the big race at the end of the year.
Joanna Starek: It's a very objective measure. You either swim fast enough during the season to qualify or you don't.
Robert Krulwich: And when, at the end of the season, Joanna and her research partner Caroline looked at which swimmers did the best, which ones qualified [crosstalk 00:09:41].
Joanna Starek: We did find a bizarre relationship.
Robert Krulwich: The swimmers who said, the one the liars, who said no to all these questions [crosstalk 00:09:47].
Joanna Starek: Do you enjoy your bowel movements?
Speaker 30: No.
Joanna Starek: Have you ever thought about killing yourself?
Speaker 30: No.
Joanna Starek: Have you ever thought about raping someone?
Speaker 31: No.
Robert Krulwich: Consistently [crosstalk 00:09:54].
Joanna Starek: They were the winners.
Robert Krulwich: The fastest and most successful swimmers were the ones who on the questionnaire, according to Harold and Ruben, lied to themselves.
Joanna Starek: Yes, I do think a little bit of deception is not necessarily a bad thing.
Robert Krulwich: It might even be a crucial thing.
Robert Krulwich: Just for example, I want you to listen to these Olympic track athletes. We got these interview clips from the sound artist bin ... Ruben ... listen to how these athletes describe the process of getting ready to race.
Speaker 32: We believe we're invincible 'cause if we go in there with any other thought, there's no chance of us accomplishing our goal.
Speaker 33: Well of course, I always win in my thoughts.
Speaker 34: It's like I have the ability to catch this person. It's gonna happen.
Speaker 35: Take your head off. Leave your head at home, leave your brain at home today. When I step on the runway, I just relax myself. You are the best and I go.
Robert Krulwich: And more than sports, denying certain facts about the real world around you according to any number of new studies produces people who turns out are better at business and better at working with teams, and now here's the real kicker, they turn out to be happier people.
Harold Sackheim: The questionnaire served a couple of purposes. One of the things that it taught us is that people who were happiest, were the ones who were lying to themselves more.
Joanna Starek: The people who are the most realistic, that actually see the world exactly as it is, tend to be slightly more depressed than others.
Robert Krulwich: Time and time again, researchers have found that depressed people lie less.
Harold Sackheim: They see all the pain in the world, how horrible people are with each other, and they tell you everything about themselves, what their weaknesses are, what terrible things they've done to other people. And the problem is they're right. And so maybe it's the way we help people is to help them be wrong.
Robert Krulwich: It might just be that hiding ideas that we know to be true, hiding those ideas from ourselves is what we need to get by.
Harold Sackheim: We're so vulnerable to being hurt that we're given the capacity to distort as a gift.
Jad Abumrad: Well that's it for us. If you want any more information on anything you heard this hour, check our website radiolab.org.
Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.
Jad Abumrad: I'm Jad Abumrad.
Robert Krulwich: And this is Radiolab.
Jad Abumrad: Thanks for listening.
Speaker 36: You have two new messages.
Speaker 37: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad with Lulu Miller, Rob Christensen, Ellen Horns, Justin Paul, and Soren Wheeler. Production support by Amber Seely, Laska Kebble, Jed Teres, Sarah Pelligrini, Ariel Ladsky, Heather Radky, Michael O'Ryan McMannis, and Sally Hership. Special thanks to me, Jude Hoffner, Jane Dumestra, [crosstalk 00:12:35].
Speaker 38: and Scott Robinson. Radiolab is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Science Foundation.
Speaker 38: Radiolab is produced by WMYC, New York Public Radio, and distributed by NPR, National Public Radio. Bye.