Telling it Like it Isn’t

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
— Leonardo da Vinci

We recently drove from Asheville, North Carolina to San Diego, California — about 36 hours of driving time. I was pleasantly surprised not to hit a single pothole. The roads were in excellent shape from coast to coast. Thank you, President Obama, for your stimulus package.

New Tappan Zee bridge | Author: Pete Souza | Source:
Author: Pete Souza | Source: Official White House photo

The bump-less ride made me think of the broad assault Trump has made on the Obama legacy by telling it like it isn’t regarding infrastructure, immigration, trade, climate change, the Iran deal, regulations, health care, crime, etc.

I35W Collapse | Author: Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard
A quarter of the bridges in the U.S. need significant repair. Above: Cars rest on the collapsed portion of the collapsed I-35W Mississippi River bridge. Credit: Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard

To make the trip a bit more tolerable we listened to podcasts for most of the way. If you ever have to drive great distances or suffer through long commutes, I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell, David Axelrod, and Krista Tippett. Gladwell’s two seasons of “Revisionist History” are particularly compelling and captivating.

What struck me as I was listening to Gladwell’s podcasts was that, in spite of good intentions, we often tell stories with complete confidence in their truth when the actual facts of the story contradict our beliefs.

In short, we often think we are telling it like it is when, in truth, we are telling it like it isn’t. There are other instances, of course, in which we may purposely misrepresent the truth. We now know this phenomenon as “fake news.”

Title: Illusion / Liu Yushan | Credit: Tsinghua University | Source: Ars Electronica | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Title: Illusion / Liu Yushan | Credit: Tsinghua University | Source: Ars Electronica | License: CC BY-NC-ND

When I searched the internet to see if anyone else had ever come up with this clever notion of “telling it like it isn’t,” I found not only that Scott Adams had written a Dilbert book entitled the same, but also that scholars had actually researched the subject extensively in the last 3 decades of the 20th century. I was surprised to learn that Trump is not the first incarnation of someone who profits by telling it like it isn’t. He may be the most egregious and dangerous example of bold-faced lies, but the phenomenon has a long history.

The academic name for “telling it like it isn’t” is verbal deception.

One researcher (Turner et al, 1975) suggested three forms of verbal deception or information control: distortion, concealment, and diversion.

Another scholar (Metts, 1989) classified verbal deception as lies, exaggerations, half-truths and secrets.

In 1992, McCornack added another angle by creating a continuum with omission at one end and falsification on the other end.

Others have added insinuation, reticence, faking, obfuscation, deliberate ambiguity, and pretending to the mix.

In all cases, messages are manipulated to deceive the receiver.

In practically all aspects of life, we often find people “telling it like it isn’t.” I know I’m often guilty of exaggeration and omission.

Trump is a perfect role model for all three of Turner’s deceptions: concealment, distortion, and diversion. He has concealed his tax records and business connections; he continually distorts information regarding tax reform and health care among others; and he is a master of changing the conversation and creating “noise” to distract us from the dismantling and destruction going on in the EPA, Energy, Justice, Education etc. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of role modeling we need from the most powerful office in the world.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines deception as:

“to cause to believe what is false; to mislead as to a matter of fact, lead into error, impose upon, delude, or take in.”

While this definition clarifies lying, it doesn’t take into account, for example, the person(s) whom the speaker is intending to deceive who already holds the falsehood to be true. The deceptive “sender” may be simply reinforcing a strongly held belief of the “receiver”, whether it has to do with race, sex, religion, or political identity.

For me, telling it like it is requires a great deal of humility, an absence of hubris, and no fear of humiliation.

I think hubris may lead us to “tell it like it isn’t.”

When we have total confidence in our cognitive abilities and complete certitude in our beliefs, we are vulnerable to reinforcing our opinions with information that is based on correlation instead of causation. Think rain dances. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman refers to this inclination as looking for stories to support our beliefs instead of digging for evidence to find the truth.

Antoine Vollon, "Mound of Butter" (Source: National Gallery of Art | License: CC0
Antoine Vollon, “Mound of Butter” (Source: NGA)

In one of Gladwell’s podcasts, he tells the story of a dedicated researcher who sought to demonstrate that butter is bad for your health. He conducted a rigorous study comparing health outcomes for people who ate butter to those who ate vegetable oils controlling for all other diet and health variables. To his surprise, he found that the “butter group” lowered their cholesterol, but lived shorter than the vegetable oil group. Even though he entered the study with great confidence in his beliefs, he had the humility to bow to the evidence that showed he was wrong.

In another podcast, Gladwell tells the story of how Rick Barry became the best free throw shooter in NBA history by using the “granny style” of shooting — or starting the delivery between your legs. Barry didn’t care what other players thought of his style because it worked. Wilt Chamberlain, on the other hand, was a terrible free throw shooter. When he tried the Barry method, he significantly improved his average, but refused to continue to use the style because it was too humiliating.

If we think about hubris, humility, and fear of humiliation, it is rather obvious that Trump is on the wrong side of all three. He is completely hubristic, he has no humility, and he is so afraid of humiliation that he humiliates others instead. You might say that I’m guilty of exaggeration here, but I don’t think so.

I know Trump is an easy target, but there are two larger issues:

  1. Aren’t we all guilty at some level of telling like it isn’t? And
  2. Why does his base continue to be taken in by his verbal deception?

In regard to the first issue, I believe there are several pitfalls that we all need to avoid. First, because of our biases, we may assign more weight to a particular variable than it deserves. For example, it’s tempting to say the biggest reason people voted for Trump is racism. In a previous post, I identified 50 possible reasons people may have voted for him, and I still have no idea what a fair attribution of variance would look like — even now, after reading hundreds of articles on the subject.

Second, because we like to present ourselves in the best possible light, we may be guilty of selective disclosure — we only share the positive sides of ourselves. It is tempting to omit parts of a story that don’t support the image we would like to present.

Third, we are experts at self-justification. I know I am usually able to rationalize a decision or action I have taken.

We are as resistant to owning the full truth about ourselves as we are quick to assume the worst truth about another,

i.e. we can see the speck in another person’s eye more easily than a log in our own eye. Sound familiar?

Title: Real Imaginary Objects / Daniel Crooks (AU) | Author: Daniel Crooks | Source: Ars Electronica | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Title: Real Imaginary Objects / Daniel Crooks (AU) | Author: Daniel Crooks | Source: Ars Electronica | License: CC BY-NC-ND

Yes, our biases, delusions, opinions, and misrepresentations can make it difficult to tell it like it really is.

Accepting our own limitations, however, does not excuse the extreme example of what we are seeing in the White House. With Mueller’s first indictments, we are being bombarded with a barrage of distortions and diversions from the Chief Tweeting Officer. I’m counting on the special investigative team to tell it like it is, expose the lies, and end this nonsense.

In regard to my second larger issue, I’m still not sure why his base continues to be taken in by his verbal deceptions. In a recent NYT column, perhaps David Brooks answers the question best:

“Trump’s supporters follow him because he gets his facts wrong, but he gets his myths right. He tells the morality tale that works for them.”

To me, the truth is that Trump capitalizes on people’s desire to hear it like it isn’t.

Let’s hold ourselves accountable for not doing the same. And let’s “take-in” da Vinci’s advice that we not suffer the deception of our own opinions.

Originally published at Perspectives & Possibilities.