Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Do smart people lie more?

In his new book The Folly of Fools, Robert Trivers hypothesizes that smart people are more likely to tell lies. This surprised me since I usually assume that intelligent people tend to act more prosocially. According to Trivers, if you compare across species, deception increases with intelligence. Better deception and manipulation require more mental ability.   

Add Health participants (teens and young adults) were given a vocabulary test and were asked how often they lie to their parents about their whereabouts. I looked at the correlation between the two questions: it is a tiny .07 (sample size = 6,168). For males, it is a bit stronger--.10--while it is .only .05 for females. So, there is a tendency for smarter youths to lie more frequently, but it is very weak.

Anecdotally, I can see that my smartest child is the most dishonest.  His lies are pretty clever for a 4 year old.  A few more years, and he'll probably outsmart his old man. I'd like to think that I can teach him to be more honest, but behavioral genetic research makes me less optimistic.

By they way, Trivers seems to think that bright people not only deceive more; they are also more likely to self-deceive, which is contrary to what most intelligent people think about themselves.

20 comments:

  1. Anonymous3:53 PM

    In his new book The Folly of Fools, Robert Trivers hypothesizes that smart people are more likely to tell lies. This surprised me since I usually assume that intelligent people tend to act more prosocially.


    That seems like a curious assumption.

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  2. For example, HBD-ers like to emphasize that dull people are more likely to be criminals.

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  3. @Ron - is the book worth reading?

    (Of course, Trivers used to be a scientific genius - or nearly so - but has apparently suffered years of psychological illness since.)

    The assumption that intelligent people are more dishonest could be seen as a version of the 'clever silly' idea I have been pushing - this is clearer if dishonesty is used rather than 'lies'

    - because one of the major dishonesties of clever people is to draw a sharp (moral) distinction between lying and intentionally-misleading - the ideal being language that is legalistically stating 'A' while superficially and obviously implying 'B'.

    On this basis virtually-all intellectuals are dishonest virtually all of the time - since they work in bureaucracies where dishonesty is a requirement of the job.

    Intellectuals mostly swim in an ocean of dishonesty, to change the metapor, they breathe-in and exhale dishonesty with every breath - naturally they cannot perceive any *specific* lies...

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  4. I recommend the book. The style is enjoyable, and the thinking is provocative and well-researched. Trivers skewers mainstream social science which is a pleasure.

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  5. Anonymous2:18 PM

    For example, HBD-ers like to emphasize that dull people are more likely to be criminals.


    Yeah, but that's a limitation of HBD. Smart criminals, by definition, are less likely to get caught.

    The same applies to lying. Smart people will naturally lie better than dumb people. You could argue that dumb people are less likely to lie because they are more likely to get caught at it.

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  6. This goes along with Jacques Ellul's insight that you have to be reasonably smart for propaganda to work on you?

    http://www.amazon.com/Propaganda-Formation-Attitudes-Jacques-Ellul/dp/0394718747

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  7. "Anecdotally, I can see that my smartest child is the most dishonest."

    Smart child knows how to lie.

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  8. Deckin10:52 AM

    Since Trivers the person was brought up, how about the correlation of intelligence and the inability to read dishonesty in others? Trivers not only joined the Black Panthers, he had Huey Newton (well known intellectual wannabe and all around pimping thug) be his daughter's godfather. That guy could really read 'em, huh?

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  9. Anonymous11:28 AM

    Smart people lie more because they spend all their time pretending to be dumb.

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  10. Anonymous2:15 PM

    Trivers seems to think that bright people not only deceive more; they are also more likely to self-deceive, which is contrary to what most intelligent people think about themselves



    There's a circular chain of cause and effect there. If intelligent people are in fact more likely to deceive themselves, then obviously the notion that they are likely to self-deceive is going to be contrary to what most intelligent people think about themselves.

    Ashkenazi Jews, famously, are noted for having an above average IQ. Are they equally noted for their honesty to themselves and towards others?

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  11. Anonymous2:21 PM

    dull people are more likely to be criminals.


    Dull people are more likely to be a particular sort of criminal, the sort who mugs people or robs a convenience store at gunpoint.

    Smart people are better able to rob people and get away with it. In extreme cases smart people can even have the state do their robbing for them. That is, they are smart enough to have their criminality legalized and even to have the state commit robbery on their behalf.

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  12. Intelligent people have more options than dumb people, in terms of making money without violence and harm and negative sum games (they "see" a wider set of possibilities and are better at all of those) and are more likely to be able to be aware of, understand and plan the likely social consequences of crime.

    Both of these generally encourage them not to commit crimes. They're not particularly nicer people in personality otherwise.

    Although having said that, smarter people may also be moral systematizers rather than gut thinkers, and this might help them in our society at least, to avoid moral hazards (but not in those societies where the systematic moral code is horrible, to the point of being less good than not even having one at all).

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  13. Anonymous12:12 PM

    Intelligent people have more options than dumb people, in terms of making money without violence and harm and negative sum games


    Without violence, at any rate.


    [they] are more likely to be able to be aware of, understand and plan the likely social consequences of crime.

    Both of these generally encourage them not to commit crimes. They're not particularly nicer people in personality otherwise.


    The obsessive legalistic focus on "crime" makes intelligent people look better than they actually are. Change the discussion to "socially destructive behavior" and you find that intelligent people are very prone to engage in it, from Hollywood to Wall Street to Washington DC.

    Intelligent people, not being any nicer than average, don't really give a damn about the "social consequences" of their actions. They care about whether or not they personally face punishment for their actions. If they don't face such punishment they demonstrate as little concern for "social consequences" as any gang-banger.

    If you want to say "Intelligent people tend not to mug other people at knife-point", I'll agree with you.

    But "activity with negative social consequences" is so much broader than that.

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  14. Anonymous8:39 AM

    I had to take a MMPI2 test for a custody evaluation. Part of the testing was a quickie IQ test. What I later read was that smarter people are more likely to try and game the test by giving answers they think the evaluator wants to hear.

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  15. I don't think smart people are *less* ethical, just more dangerous when they're not.

    As for your son: raise him with religion so he's not too evil, and encourage him to go into a field like business where a little moral laxity is useful.

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  16. Anonymous1:41 PM

    There are religions that allow for and even promote "moral laxity" while restraining, at least apparently, its adherents from appearing "too evil".

    The problem is for those who don't want to live in and raise their kids in environments filled with such people. These religions tend to be the same ones that attack anyone as "hateful" and "evil" and try to impose their morals on everyone else and prevent people from living independently in exclusive environments and practicing their own morals.

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  17. Saint Louis8:39 PM

    Maybe the the dumb kids have dumb parents who don't care as much about the kids' whereabouts. Therefore, the dumb kids don't have to lie as much.

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  18. I think the answer's rather obvious; deception does not directly correlate to dishonesty.

    Smart people are more likely to enjoy subterfuge, subtle signalling, complex flirting, et cetera - they will play a more adept, and more complex social game than their stupider counterparts. However, this is not dishonesty (any more than flirting with plausible deniability is dishonest).

    They're testing for X, but calling it Y.

    The rationalization question is entirely separate; while I agree that smart people tend to delude themselves with complex post-hoc arguments, it could equally be pointed out that stupid people hold fast to self-aggrandizing, nonsense moral 'truths'.

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  19. Anonymous2:27 AM

    Smart people are more likely to enjoy subterfuge, subtle signalling, complex flirting, et cetera

    Sounds plausible, but it would also sound plausible that smart people would prefer simplification, elegance and clarity - those are qualities that problem solving minds seek.

    So I'd expect these two to at least cancel one another out.

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  20. Anonymous2:54 AM

    an idiot trying to write a book about genius,interesting...:)

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