Watch Ian Leslie’s Necessary Lies: From Placebo to Politics, Your World Is a Lie

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Ian Leslie Necessary Lies LectureFrom the special effects of Only God Forgives to Charlie Kaufman’s observation that “movies lies a lot,” it becomes clear that, as Werner Herzog put it, cinema is “illusionist work.” For Michael Haneke, “film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth.”

But the implications and applications of lies go well beyond art and define our entire lives, as Ian Leslie argues in his lecture Necessary Lies.

Ian Leslie’s Necessary Lies

Lying isn’t a bug in the human software, a mere foible. It’s a defining characteristic for our species and fundamental to all human societies, including our own. We just don’t like to admit it. They may even play a central role in our evolution. One of the biggest mysteries of science is the question of why human being develop such big brains in comparison to other animals, including other primates. Brains demand a huge amount of energy. […] So our higher intelligence would seem to be a dangerous luxury.

[…] Perhaps early humans developed big brains to cope with the challenges of social life, and in particular how to cope with the possibility of deceit. This begins with the fact that our ancestors lived in larger groups and more complex groups than other primates. Larger groups bring more security and better gossip, but they also bring competition for food and mates. each member has to learn how to exploit and how to maneuver the group’s other members, or at least how to avoid the same happening to them.

And that means remembering who is your ally and who is your enemy and predicting what someone else is thinking. This all demands far more intellectual power than dealing with nature. After all, trees don’t move around. Rocks don’t plot to trick you out of your food. Rick Byrne went on to show that the frequency of deception in a species is directly proportional to the size of its neocortex. […] The better the liar, the bigger the brain.

Human Language: The Ultimate Deceit Tool

Leslie goes on to explain how the invention of language greatly facilitated the capacity for deceit.

[…]We owe our intelligence to deceit, or at least in part. Our capacity to deceit was supercharged by the invention of language, which enabled us to represent reality with symbols that are inherently ambiguous. […] It shouldn’t be surprise, then, that society can’t function without lies. Bernard Witham called this the theory of Machiavellian intelligence and has been influential across the social sciences because it’s really a theory about how it is that human societies function. What it doesn’t say is that people are constantly lying to each other. Actually, it makes sense for us to tell the truth most of the time. We simply couldn’t function, couldn’t cooperate, couldn’t get anything done if lying was our default mode.

But, it’s equally true that no society can function without its allotment of lies and lying. Lying and truth exist in what social sciences call an equilibrium. For some reason we are unwilling to accept this is the case. But whenever an effort is made to abolish lying, the result is always more lying. 

The Invention of Placebo

[…] During Second World War, an American doctor and Harvard Medical researcher named Henry Beecher found himself in a very tricky situation. […] One day, a soldier with particularly horrific injuries arrived just as the morphine ran out.

In desperation, one of the nurses injected the patient with water, telling the patient it was an anesthetic. What Beecher observed next changed his view of medicine forever. The patient who had been in agony settled down immediately. […] The nurse’s benign deception has worked as effectively as one of the most powerful painkillers in the medical arsenal.

Beecher returned home to lead the first series of scientific studies of the phenomenon of placebo: the healing power of false beliefs. He concluded that even legitimate medical treatments have a component of the efficacy that is accounted for purely by what the patient believes about it. Every cure contains its tincture of deceit.

It’s now well established that all sorts of conditions, from depression to heart disease, to Parkinson, can be alleviated or even cured by the application of a benign lie.

 The Evolutionary Advantage of Lying

The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has proposed that humans develop a talent for self-deception to better compete in the Machiavellian arms race of deception and counter-deception. The best ways to make your lies believable is to believe them yourself, and so those able to perform that trick would have been selected for spreading the gene for self-deception.

Now, whether or not you buy that theory, it’s easy to see that a measure of deception can be beneficial to an individual. You are more likely to leap for that fruit, ask out that girl, or survive a period without food if you are at depth in persuading yourself that everything will work out just fine.

There’s evidence to show that the people that are a little better at lying to themselves about their control over events and over the future who rise to the top in business, often generating wealth in the process.

So in this way, self-deception can be beneficial not just to the individual, but to society. […] This isn’t an argument for more lies. Lies can corrode trust and wreck relationships. But we ought to accept that a measure of lies is everywhere and necessary. It’s time to be honest about deceit.

Relying on data from a variety of sources and disciplines, Ian Leslie argues that lies are an indispensable part of our lives. Watch the whole lecture: