Diamonds are rare. Bottled water is safer than tap. Coffee can sober you up. People have different learning styles. Vaccines can cause autism.
Did that last statement stand out to you? It shouldn’t; they’re all either completely false or scientifically unsupported. In fact, the exact same mechanism that has deluded anti-vaxxers into believing that life-saving vaccines will cause adverse side effects has also led you to believe the truth of these other claims despite much evidence to the contrary. This unfortunate aspect of the human brain, referred to as the illusory truth effect (or illusion of truth effect), has been known to psychologists since the late 1970’s and can be summarized as such:
The more often you hear an assertion, the more likely you are to believe it.
The brain has a tendency to mistake repetition as truth, so much so that, over time, simply remembering can be confused with believing. Yet the illusory truth effect is even stronger than this. More recent studies have shown that not even preexisting knowledge of the truth can protect against false but repeated information, meaning that even when someone already knows the truth, he or she can be misled to believe the lie as long as it is repeated enough. This is an unsettling tendency of the human brain, one that really highlights the dangerous nature of lies; once picked up and spread as truth, it is difficult to ever overcome the contagious and convincing nature of a lie.
On a global scale, then, it’s easy to grasp the negative effects that can occur when lies are allowed to run rampant (e.g. the decrease in vaccination rates and consequent rise in instances of previously overcome diseases). But what about on a personal level, either at home or at work? Can the little lies we tell one another have a similarly (albeit smaller-scale) negative effect? Of course they can, and often in unforeseen ways.
Take for example two of my closest loved ones – we’ll call them Betty and Don – both of whom really enjoy playing devil’s advocate, frequently for no other reason than to be stubborn contrarians. Now I would be lying if I said that this never gets annoying (sorry guys), but nonetheless, I will admit that it can provide endless entertainment, especially when they set their sights on one another (and I’m not expected to get in the middle).
Most of the time, these debates are trivial, either over matters of opinion (e.g. whether or not Ben Affleck is a bad actor) or over entirely inconsequential topics (e.g. if it’s weird to dip chocolate chip cookies into a glass of cream rather than milk). However, I’ve recently noticed that they will also lock horns (both with each other, as well as with others) over more important subjects that neither of them is even remotely qualified to debate. More interesting, they approach each of these stand-offs with such fervor and conviction of belief (informed solely by intuition or anecdotal observation) that you would think they both have PhDs in the relevant fields (they don’t – they’re electrical engineers by education).
Admittedly, they’re both intelligent, and as such are more than capable of discussing a considerable number of matters. However, it’s during these other times (in which they are passionately debating opinions or beliefs that have little basis in fact) that we encounter real cause for concern. You see, these conversations frequently take place in front of others, many of whom might either be impressionable or uninformed of the reality that Betty and Don’s arguments are not factually grounded. Worse, it is not uncommon for these arguments to be repeated over several different instances, with both Betty and Don maintaining the same opinions. As such, they not only risk misleading others to accept their opinions as true, they even threaten to delude themselves into viewing their own opinions as true.
This isn’t uncommon. In fact, I’ve experienced this personally.
I recently did an interview for a podcast focused on creativity. At the beginning of the segment, the host asked me about my time working at MTV, in particular why I decided to leave after my last assignment (an episode of the reality series MADE). I’ve honed this story over dozens of retellings, having figured out exactly which parts to emphasize and exaggerate in order to create the most compelling tale. Unfortunately, shortly after starting this particular retelling, I found myself constantly needing to backtrack in order to correct a range of subtle inaccuracies. The problem was that the exaggerations that I had used in the past to make the story better were now close enough to lies to they made me uncomfortable.Yet in all the times I’ve told this story (likely with the exception of the very first one), I had never considered any of it to be a lie. My commitment to honesty opened my eyes up to my own past lies, making it nearly impossible to tell the story in the same way I had a dozen times before.
While the pursuit of my commitment is to always speak honestly, it’s important to acknowledge that there will be times when I am just unsure of the actual truth. But that’s okay; a statement can still be honest due to the way it accurately represents my beliefs, even if it isn’t a true or factual statement about the world. In these moments (in which it is clear to me that my belief is just that), it is my responsibility to be clear about my degree of uncertainty or subjectivity. Only through this commitment to ensuring an alignment between perception and reality can I avoid having my beliefs become my lies – lies that others will accept as true and pass on.
So to return to my loved ones: Does their behavior make them bad people? Of course not. By anyone’s standards, I’m a fiercely opinionated person, as well. Since committing to honesty, though, I’ve been forced to be constantly cognizant of when what I’m saying is a subjective opinion, a statement of belief, or a proven (or at least rationally supported) fact about reality. At times, I have found it difficult to distinguish them from one another mid-thought. At others, it has been exhausting trying to strike a balance between clarifying the truth-status of my statements and belaboring the conversation with constant disclaimers. Yet in both cases it has been worth it.
By suffering these short-term discomforts, I’ve come to be more comfortable with myself, particularly in regards to the limits of my knowledge. Even better, by forcing myself to consider what I do and do not know, I now have a clear path forward in terms of personal growth, one that wasn’t apparent before. So while these recent conversations with others have admittedly felt unnaturally difficult, they have also resulted in important internal dialogues, and as such have been well worth having.