About lies and punishments

23 de February 2021

Jaume Terradas wrote a few days ago about lies, pseudo-truths, their ubiquity in nature, and their ethical connotations. His writing is timely, thoughtful and in my opinion accurate. With his permission, I will add a couple of additional thoughts. The time we live leads us to transfer to the space of bits the conversations that we had so many times at the office door.

An example about thinking reiteration is poker. Credit: Public Domain.

An example about thinking iteration is poker. Credit: Public Domain.

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Some scholars claim that the essence of human psychology lies in the game of deceiving and uncovering the lie. That is related with the well-known definition of intelligence that is based on the fact that I, as an interlocutor, know what my listener is thinking about the idea that I am transmitting, in a recurrent game of crossed thoughts. Usually, when we talk to someone, we deduce what the other person is interpreting from our words. There are three iterations of the thoughts. Few people can do four of those reiterations, and even fewer can do five. Very successful games, like poker, are based on this principle. Obviously, these statements are a gross oversimplification. The behavioral sciences and psychology have greatly refined these concepts and knowledge in these fields has advanced enormously. Therefore, these reflections are clearly superficial. However, they serve to illustrate a basic idea: the lie and its disclosure are inseparable.

Human societies are based on collaboration. That implies altruism, making an investment of our resources helping the neighbor without the return on investment being evident.

Human societies, like those of other living beings, are based on collaboration. That implies altruism, making an investment of our resources helping the neighbor without the return on investment being evident (which does not mean that it does not exist). There may be a deferred return in time – “help and they will help you”- and even in the long term that only your offspring will perceive it – “your grandchildren will thank you” -. The return on the investment made can also be transferred to another type of profit, for example, emotional – “sleeping with a clear conscience” -.

In any case, like any investment, collaboration has its risks, and the benefits are uncertain. Therefore, it is not so rare that someone will take advantage of the effort of others, knowing that they will not be committed to returning. From here to the lie there is only a very small step. So, there cannot be a perfectly altruistic human society, for the simple reason that the first person to cheat will be assured of success in a group of people in which all others act in good faith.

The common cuckoo is a bird with a parasitic behavior, since it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds to incubate them. The cuckoo chick will hatch before the legitimate eggs and will remove them to receive all the attention alone. Credit: Public Domain.

The common cuckoo is a bird with a parasitic behavior: it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds to incubate them. The cuckoo chick will hatch before the legitimate eggs and will remove them to receive all the attention alone. Credit: Public Domain.

But just as there cannot be a fully altruistic society, there cannot be a society in which everyone cheats: it would be unpredictable, collaborations could not be established, and the social system would vanish into individual behaviors. In the animal world, if a prey always manages to deceive the predator thanks to its camouflage, this would starve. Unless he ends up looking for another prey species that is not capable of deceiving him, which in turn would end up becoming extinct. This does not usually happen because in nature many species interact, with their different deception tactics, and there are multiple ways to obtain resources.

Punishment, an antidote to lies

The social cement is based on collaborating and establishing mechanisms to discover liars. And then punish them, so that the cost of lying does not outweigh the benefit of lying. It is the essence of thrillers, and it explains the success of this literary genre, at least in part. In other words, there is no lie without its revelation and punishment. They are inseparable, as in a dialectical game in which the synthesis is the coexistence of the two, with the alerts and punishments chasing the lies in a version of the Red Queen race in Alice in Wonderland – a simile widely used in evolutionary theory -. Obviously, the more lies, and the more obvious they are, the easier it is to discover them, and that activates the alerts and the punishment mechanisms. We could say that a negative feedback loop is generated that adjusts the altruism-deception system, which, without control, could end up being extinguished, as we have explained.

Ixion, José de Ribera (1632). The centaur Ixion tries to impersonate Jupiter to sleep with his wife and is punished in a wheel for all eternity. For years, this painting was part of the collection of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, probably to convey the fear of punishment. Credit: Museo Nacional del Prado.

Ixión, José de Ribera (1632). The centaur Ixión tries to impersonate Jupiter to sleep with his wife and is punished in a wheel for all eternity. For years, this painting was part of the collection of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, probably to convey the fear of punishment. Credit: Museo Nacional del Prado.

The reconstruction of the world that the psyche makes is anything but objective and difficult to separate from the convenience of each one.

We live in a time in which lies, and pseudo-truths, can be built and spread massively. Then, the alert mechanisms are put in place, like the post by Jaume Terradas. The term “fake news” has quickly been coined. Platforms emerge to expose them. The mainstream media constantly echo them. The fact that these alert initiatives are inevitable does not diminish their importance. Still, it is not always easy to identify whether it is deception with bad faith or mere ignorance. The reconstruction of the world that the psyche makes is anything but objective and difficult to separate from the convenience of each one. The deceivers have always used this self-made reconstruction as an alibi for their actions. After the alert, the punishment has to come. If not, the only cost of the lie would be its production and dissemination. Except in dramatic cases or economic damage is great, our society tends to prefer social discredit. After all, applying punishments also has its cost.

Truths and beliefs

But one wonders why fake news or pseudo-truths continue to be successful after being revealed. Obviously, the discoverer of the deception may be an interested party and, therefore, a priori generator of another lie. Things are getting complicated, like in spy novels. But in reality, many people are not interested in the truth as an objective fact. They prefer their own perception of reality, obviously biased. Truth becomes belief, and vice versa, belief becomes true.

The attitudes without rational contrast, as anti-vaccines, are largely based on confirmation biases, in which only what is pre-considered as true is accepted as such.

These days we hear some people say that they do not plan to get the CoVid vaccine because they do not “believe” in vaccines. Obviously, in the face of this position, rational argumentation based on verified facts only leads to a reaffirmation of positions. These attitudes without rational contrast are largely based on confirmation biases, in which only what is pre-considered as true is accepted as such. These biases are reinforced with social networks, which quickly become compartmentalized into groups that think alike and feed back their opinion. Scientists are not exempt from these biases, but since they abhor a science based on beliefs, they end up defeating them. I myself have dedicated my scientific career to working on topics that I considered trivial or extravagant the first time I heard about them: biodiversity, climate change. And I am reasonably satisfied that I changed my mind, when the evidence showed me new knowledge that deserved to be learned.

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Professor d’Ecologia de la UAB. Investigador del CREAF en temes d’ecologia de la vegetació i canvi global. President de l’Asociación Española de Ecología Terrestre.
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