Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Faking Your Way Through Life

When I first came up with the title for this post, I thought I should google it to see if anyone had done anything similar. Sure enough. Phony!: How I Faked My Way Through Life, a confessional memoir, was just published. I have not read the book, but the publisher’s blurbs say it is the story of a young woman who lied about not having a college degree and rose to high positions in business. Degrees and diplomas do not impress me as qualifying anyone for anything, but I was taught that it is not nice to lie.

My interest in the subject is not so much why people fake reality in a big way like the author of this book, but why do they fake reality at all? Why do people misperceive the most obvious facts? Why do they exaggerate and embellish them? Why do they have selective memories? Why do they fake reality in the smallest of ways when, to an outside observer, a simple statement of truth would be so easy and anxiety-free to make?

As creatures of habit, we learn much of our behavior from others, especially by example from our parents and other admired adults. Sometimes, those lessons are not the best ones to learn. For instance, an attendant at the ticket booth of a tourist attraction, where children under six were admitted free, related this story. One parent said that his daughter was under six, but the daughter, proud of her recent birthday, shot back with an “I’m six!” Lesson learned and seed planted? Fake your way into paying events and, when generalized, fake your way through life, such as saying you have a college degree when in fact you do not. Why would the father say such a thing? Affordability aside (the ticket price was trivial), he presumably learned it at an earlier time from his admired others.

This line of thought only leads to an infinite regress. At some point, someone must have decided on his or her own, absent outside influence, that something is not true or completely true and yet went on to recite the falsehood. The standard motivations offered to explain lying are fear and glory. Fear of being caught for having done something wrong and glory of enhancing one’s image in the eyes of others. And children are known to exhibit both motivations. When children become adults, however, some follow the straight and narrow of truth-telling, others do not. Among the others, some become self-aware fakers; the rest fall into that fuzzy middle ground and become BS’ers (1, 2, 3), all the while insisting that they are completely honest. Why?

The answer has to be some combination of influence from the outside and decisions made by the individual. The myriad decisions made daily, from childhood to adulthood, about the myriad influences that come into our minds from the outside ultimately determine how we go about living our lives. A commitment from early on to perceive facts as facts and to state facts as facts, without regard for the consequences of getting caught or for an unearned image in the eyes of others is the path to developing a mind that will find faking of any kind anathema to living a decent life. A lesser commitment leads to fudging, guessing, and being susceptible to the influence of fear and the siren calls of glory. A lesser commitment leads to the adult who, in a seemingly confident and oh-so-precise manner, asserts in a meeting that the vote two years ago was nine to nine to one, when in fact there was no vote at all.

The result of these decisions and commitment is what Ayn Rand called psycho-epistemology, the mental habit built up over time that determines each individual’s unique way of perceiving reality. This is not determinism in the philosophical sense that we have no genuine alternatives in life because every decision and action is causally preformed and could not have been otherwise. Our decisions and actions could have been otherwise because of the myriad decisions we have made since childhood. The cause of our behavior is the decisions we have made, and continue to make, about outside influences. We make them every minute of our waking lives. That the results of the decisions have become entrenched premises in our subconscious minds since childhood only makes changing them as an adult difficult, but not impossible. It is in this sense that our behavior is self-caused.

This means that the policy of faking one’s way through life could have been and, in the present, can be otherwise. Changing a psychology at an advanced age can be achieved, though it can be challenging—and painful—to go against the years or decades of prior decisions. Preventive medicine calls for making correct, reality-focused decisions in one’s early years. The task of parents and teachers is to be especially alert to these decisions and encourage their children and students by example and instruction to see facts as facts and then to communicate the facts as facts. Nothing more or less.

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