The best non-fiction doesn’t just answer questions about a particular subject but motivates us to ask more. Three pages into Ian Leslie’s Born Liars and I’m already drawn in, inspired to personally take on the inquiry into the role deception plays in our lives.
Starting with studies in primate behaviour that prove the better the liar, the bigger the brain, Leslie builds his case that human beings are hard-wired to deceive. We learn that lying in children is actually a sign of creative intelligence and that punishing children too vigorously for lying actually invites deception. We see the connection between powerlessness and lying and how lies make us feel more in control of difficult situations. We are introduced to the concept of “confabulatory combination,” the technique of juxtaposing and connecting images that do not belong together to create art. According to Leslie, this too is a form of deception.
But just when you’re starting to feel all cozy and accepting of the role lying plays in your life, Leslie reveals the many dangers associated with deception. And while we all know liars wreak havoc — whether we’re talking about a badly behaved boyfriend or a false hearted financier — deception’s greatest perils come from our quest for truth.
Citing a study of Norwegian police officers who prided themselves on being able to tell if witnesses are reliable or dishonest, the investigators relied instead on their instincts and unfounded notions about how rape victims should behave when determining whether a woman was being truthful about the sexual assault. And it turns out the polygraph lie-detector test is far from the infallibly scientific machine that we’ve been led to expect from watching reruns of “Law and Order.” Even the fMRI, which measures the neural activity of the brain and is touted as the new and improved version of the polygraph, has its limitations because whoever is taking the test must be 100 percent compliant. The smallest of movements renders the results unusable.
Perhaps even more alarming is Leslie’s investigation of confessions. Referring to court cases and scientific research, the author reveals just how easy it is to make people confess to crimes they never committed or to believe in memories of past events that never happened. The examples range from the harmless – college students who accept false memories about childhood adventures in Disneyland – to the horrific – men and women who confess to murder and incest and spend years in jail when they are, in fact, innocent.
In the last section of the book, discussing the role of placebos in medicine throughout the ages, the author explores how deception can help us heal. We learn how people want to be deceived into believing that some object will bring them happiness and fulfillment and that in the end our assumptions, expectations and desires are what determine our behaviour, no matter how intelligent or objective we may think we are.
Leslie is an accomplished and experienced journalist and author who has written about politics, psychology, marketing and culture in many newspapers and magazines as well as writing the book To Be President, about the 2008 Obama campaign. Leslie also works in advertising, which might explain his engaging style and easy appeal. Born Liars is filled with scientific research and hard data that nevertheless manages to avoid being dry and inaccessible.
Ian Leslie doesn’t condone deception. What he asks us to do in Born Liars is to accept our inherent duplicity as part of what makes us human. And in doing so he encourages us to do something else that comes naturally, to ask questions about ourselves and about the institutions that define us.
B.A. Markus is a writer and teacher who lies to her children about the existence of the tooth fairy.