Ivory Towers: But of course I love you

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BIRDS do it, dogs do it, ministers and (maybe) frogs do it. Lord Callaghan vehemently denies doing it, but perhaps everyone should examine the academic research on lying before getting upset.

'Lying: see Deception' advises the index in Psychological Abstracts. 'Deception: see also Cheating, Confabulation, Faking, Malingering' it continues.

The prevalence of lying within personal relationships was established by D Knox, A Schacht, J Holt and J Turner, in the College Student Journal of North Carolina University last year. Of 137 students questioned, 92 per cent reported lying to a current, or potential, sexual partner. Most common was to lie about the number of previous partners. Other popular fibs include the evaluation of the sexual experience that just happened and the characteristics of, and feelings for, the current partner.

In 'Why professionals lie: The impact of professional role conflict on reporting accuracy' (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 1993), S L Grover reports on the reporting accuracy of nurses.

'Subjects high in organisational commitment had a propensity to report more accurately to the organisation than subjects with low commitment to the organisation.' So perhaps ministers with outside directorships might be less accurate than career MPs.

'Lying in the public domain' is the title of a paper by W P Robinson in the journal American Behavioural Scientist. By considering bias and false information in legal, political and educational contexts, he observes that 'winning the argument receives higher priority than telling the truth'.

The aborted Soviet coup and 'the lies told by the Tories in Britain' are cited as examples where winning leads to greater popular appeal than truth-telling. He also raises the question of why recipients of false information so seldom contest it.

While birds are renowned for their deceitful calls, studying frogs (see 'Deceptive or honest signalling of fighting ability? A test of alternative hypotheses for the function of changes in call dominant frequency by male cricket frogs' by William E Wagner, Animal Behavior, 1992) throws little light on this question. Dogs, however, are more helpful.

R W Mitchell and N S Thompson report in the Journal of Comparative Psychology on 'Familiarity and the rarity of deception: Two theories and their relevance to play between dogs (canis familiaris) and humans (homo sapiens)'.

According to the authors, one theory of deception predicts that familiarity breeds truthfulness, another theory predicts that the better you know someone, the more likely you are to lie to them. The research set out to test the theories by watching humans playing with familiar and strange dogs. The surprising result was that 'familiars are no more successful in thwarting deception than unfamiliars'.

They conclude: 'The fact that familiars can assess reliability of a communicative act . . . can, in our view, lead to high frequencies of deception to counteract the effect of counterdeception by the victim.' So the more a minister believes that the House suspects him of lying, the more he is likely to fib to them.