Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Telling the Truth (to everyone, including yourself)

The Little Dude, now four years old, has become a handy little liar; a straight-up, bald-faced, pants on fire fibber.  Actually, that's selling him short, he's damn convincing.

The lies often revolve around hygiene, claiming to, but not having, washed hands and brushed teeth. Other times it is blaming Squeaker (15 months) for things such as losing his shoes. He has Athena fooled most of the time but I like to think that I catch him out a little more often.

We know that lying is vital to childhood developmental, but knowing not to, and telling the truth is vital to developing a decent human being.

He isn't lying maliciously, just for convenience.  And some lies are not necessarily lies in his mind, just an idealised version of reality.  He wants it to be that his sister lost his shoes.

File:Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche.jpg
Nietzsche sporting a stunning moustache.
I have had a few conversations with him about lying.  I take the Friedrich Nietzsche view on lying:
“I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that I cannot trust you any more.” 
We have established how important trust is and the fibbing has dried up significantly (or gotten really good!)

The other day.  Some Jehova's Witnesses knocked on my door, and as is my custom, I listened to them and debated them.  I figure it is better for me to tie them up (figuratively) than to let them loose in the neighbourhood to scare the frail and vulnerable with their tails of wickedness in a demon haunted world.

Maybe I like to feel better than the local nutjobs. Or I just like a good argument. Perhaps I am starved of adult conversation.

When they finally left, the Little Dude asked me "What's cognitive dissonance?" He obviously overheard the conversation.

I tried to explain to him how people might believe one thing and feel funny or stressed when they encounter information that challenges that cherished belief. They rationalise things to themselves to try to make the feeling go away.  You'll notice an example of rationalising two paragraphs ago.

I recounted Aesop's Fox and the Grapes fable. In case you don't know it, here is an abridged version:
A fox is strolling through an orchard on a hot summer day.  He sees a juicy bunch of grapes hanging on a vine and thinks they will quench his thirst. He leaps for the grapes but fails to get them.  He tries again, and again, but to no avail. He gives up, and mutters to himself as he skulks away "those grapes were probably sour, I didn't really want them anyway."
He (the Little Dude) didn't quite understand.  He kept proposing solutions to the fox's problem.  I had to recast the situation to be where the Little Dude was the central character who couldn't reach a snow pea in our garden, and tried to rationalise away why he couldn't grab the snow pea.

I explained to him that people not only lie to other people, they can lie to themselves. And when you lie to yourself there is no loss of trust, and, because you believe yourself, there are no perceived consequences.

The truth is there are consequences, you just can't see them because you are convinced of your position.  It is intellectually dishonest to rationalise things away. You end up digging yourself deeper into a hole in which you need to keep finding new and increasingly complicated ways to kid yourself into believing what you believe. And you get better at doing so, and more gullible to your own deceit.

For example, If you have a drinking problem, but really crave a drink, you may find a way to convince yourself that it is alright.  If you believe the world (and universe) was created some 6000 years ago, but the raft of scientific evidence contradicts your belief, you will find ways to rationalise away the evidence. If you think your kid is a perfect and your neighbour tells you your kid threw a rock at his cat, you will call the neighbour a liar.

We can easily con ourselves to believe anything.  It takes great strength and courage to question our motives and beliefs.  But the result is personal integrity, self-consistency and a profound understanding of one's self.

I hope to give my kids the necessary tools to identify cognitive dissonance and equip them with the intellectual honesty to question their biases. And heavens above, if you see them knocking on doors on behalf of apocalyptic death cults, you will know I have failed miserably!

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  1. I'm taking notes for future reference :)


  2. $moo? A cash cow? Are those notes you are taking bank bills?