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We’re All Lying Liars

Ulrich Boser 0

Admit it: You've lied. You told a friend that his shirt looked stylish when you actually thought it was tacky and garish. Or maybe you said to your boss that her presentations were fascinating when in fact they were insipidly mindless. Or perhaps you told your landlord that the rent check was in the mail.

Don't feel bad. You're in good, dishonest company. A growing body of research shows that people lie constantly, that deception is pervasive in everyday life. One study found that people tell two to three lies every 10 minutes, and even conservative estimates indicate that we lie at least once a day. Such incessant prevarication might be a necessary social evil, and researchers have recently discovered that some fibbing might actually be good for you. "We use lies to grease the wheels of social discourse," says University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman. "It's socially useful to tell lies."

Researchers have been studying deception for decades, trying to figure out why we tell lies. It turns out that we spin facts and make up fictions for all sorts of reasons. We might want to gain a raise or a reward, for example, or to protect friends or a lover. Our capacity for deceit appears nearly endless, from embroidering stories to wearing fake eyelashes to asking "How are you?" when we don't actually care. We even lie to ourselves about how much food we eat and how often we visit the gym.

Small embellishments can have positive psychological effects, experts say. In a study released last year, researchers found that college students who exaggerated their GPA in interviews later showed improvement in their grades. Their fiction, in other words, became self-fulfilling. "Exaggerators tend to be more confident and have higher goals for achievement," explains Richard Gramzow, a psychologist at the University of Southampton in England and one of the study's coauthors. "Positive biases about the self can be beneficial."

People who deceive themselves also tend to be happier than people who do not, some research suggests. There are social payoffs, too: Studies have shown that people who lie frequently are viewed as friendlier and more amiable than their more truthful counterparts. Still, lying is generally regarded as immoral and distasteful. "No one likes being lied to," says former FBI agent and lying expert Joe Navarro. "We feel betrayed. When is it that they are telling the truth?" And people do really want to know the truth. A new Fox drama, Lie to Me, which features a steely British deception expert, has become one of the most popular shows on television.

Lying begins early. By the age of 3, most children know how to fib, and by 6, most lie a few times a day. Experts believe that children learn to lie by observing their parents do it—that they become practiced in the art of deception by imitating Mom and Dad. And parents sometimes explicitly encourage children to tell lies. Grandma Suzy will send some ugly wool socks or an itchy sweater, and parents will ask their son or daughter to say the item is lovely. As one study concluded, children "may learn to lie in the same way as they learn to speak."

Many experts don't see much difference between a little lie (telling Grandma you loved the ugly socks) and a big lie (covering up an extramarital affair). "Anything that is not accurate is a lie. You can argue that a lie done to make someone else feel better is relatively minor. But they have an effect. The bottom line is that a lie is a lie," says Feldman. "That's the great paradox here. I do believe the more lies, the more degradation. But you can't stop lies entirely. Society would grind to a halt."

Still, people act differently when they're gilding a story and when they're telling a massive whopper. When people tell a bold and blatant lie, they typically become tense and fidgety. Their heart rate speeds up. Their body temperature increases. But when telling white, or social, lies, they usually don't feel any anxiety at all. In fact, electrodes attached to the bodies of students in Gramzow's study revealed that the students who exaggerated their GPAs showed less nervous-system activity than students who were honest about their marks. "In certain situations, such as when someone asks you if you like the awful meal they just served you or the hideous outfit they are wearing, it probably takes less thinking to tell the expected polite lie than the more difficult truth," explains University of California-Santa Barbara psychologist Bella DePaulo.

That doesn't make it any easier for people to sort out fact from fiction. Studies have shown that people can identify lies only about 50 percent of the time, or about the same as chance. To be sure, researchers have been able to figure out some clues to uncovering deception. When people tell a significant lie, for instance, they typically gesture less and their arms may appear stiff. People telling lies also might have dilated pupils because they feel nervous about spinning an untruth.

Even with the development of such research, there's no surefire way to catch a liar. But someone with a known track record of lying is likely to pay a price. "Lies add up," says Feldman. "The more you know that someone is not telling you the truth, the less trustworthy they are. They're just telling you stuff you want to hear, and you won't listen to them anymore."

 

This article first appeared in US News and World Report.

Why Do We Trust?

Ulrich Boser 0

Why do we work together? Why do we trust others? Harvard University's Dave Rand has this great image that sums it up:dpict_small

Social Trust Can Be Rebuilt: A Photo Essay

Ulrich Boser 0

As I was working on my book The Leap, I often found myself in cocktail-type conversations, trying to explain my book on trust and social cohesion. People would listen to me talk and then often tell me something along the lines of: There’s nothing we can do to improve our faith in others. Our sense of community is gone. Once trust is broken, it can never be rebuilt. 

But I came to learn that there are a lot of problems with this idea, and our sense of social trust can be improved. We can improve our sense of community, and as part of my book, I visited Rwanda to see how the nation is rebuilding a feeling of social cohesion. Through various programs and initiates, the nation has taken some important steps to recreate a sense of society.

The African nation is far from perfect. The current government has a dictatorial side. Many of the Tutsis deeply distrust Hutus. But while I was there I did come across some powerful stories of reconciliation, and I wanted to share a short little photo essay from my experience:

 

[caption id="attachment_789" align="aligncenter" width="614"]pic 1 Part of the reason for the genocide in Rwanda is a simple matter of poverty. The nation is landlocked--and lacks the mineral riches of neighboring countries like the Congo. I met this young boy outside of a so-called Reconciliation Village.[/caption]

 

[caption id="attachment_788" align="aligncenter" width="614"]pic 2 The genocide was brutal, and many Tutsis were thrown into latrines like this one to die.[/caption]

 

[caption id="attachment_791" align="aligncenter" width="614"]pic 3 After the genocide, the nation tried to create a sense of "grassroots justice." This man--the owner of a small milk company-- served as a judge during the proceedings.[/caption]

 

[caption id="attachment_792" align="aligncenter" width="614"]pic 4 Empimaque Semugabo lost three sisters, his aunt, and almost everything that he owned during the genocide. Today, he co-owns animals with some of the men who helped kill his family. I met him through the As We Forgive program.[/caption]

 

[caption id="attachment_790" align="aligncenter" width="614"]pic 5 Two men listening to a radio soap opera devoted to reconciliation run by La Benevolencia[/caption]

 

[caption id="attachment_793" align="aligncenter" width="614"]pic 6 Members of one of the Hutu families pictured here participated in attacks against members of one of the Tutsi families pictured here. Today, they work this field together as part of the As We Forgive program.[/caption]

 

Photo Source:  Derek Keats via Flickr, Ulrich Boser

The Sorry Legacy Of The Founding Fathers

Ulrich Boser 0

In 1784, five years before he became president of the United States, George Washington, 52, was nearly toothless. So he hired a dentist to transplant nine teeth into his jaw--having extracted them from the mouths of his slaves.

That's a far different image from the cherry-tree-chopping George most people remember from their history books. But recently, many historians have begun to focus on the role slavery played in the lives of the founding generation. They have been spurred in part by DNA evidence made available in 1998, which almost certainly proved Thomas Jefferson had fathered at least one child with his slave Sally Hemings. And only over the past 30 years have scholars examined history from the bottom up. Works by Gore Vidal, Henry Wiencek, and Garry Wills reveal the moral compromises made by the nation's early leaders and the fragile nature of the country's infancy. More significant, they argue that many of the Founding Fathers knew slavery was wrong--and yet most did little to fight it.

More than anything, the historians say, the founders were hampered by the culture of their time. While Washington and Jefferson privately expressed distaste for slavery (Jefferson once called it an "execrable commerce"), they also understood that it was part of the political and economic bedrock of the country they helped to create.

For one thing, the South could not afford to part with its slaves. Owning slaves was "like having a large bank account," says Wiencek, author of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. The southern states would not have signed the Constitution without protections for the "peculiar institution," including a clause that counted a slave as three fifths of a man for purposes of congressional representation.

And the statesmen's political lives depended on slavery. The three-fifths formula handed Jefferson his narrow victory in the presidential election of 1800 by inflating the votes of the southern states in the Electoral College. Once in office, Jefferson extended slavery with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803; the new land was carved into 13 states, including three slave states.

Still, Jefferson freed Hemings's children--though not Hemings herself or his approximately 150 other slaves. Washington, who had begun to believe that all men were created equal after observing the valor of black soldiers during the Revolutionary War, overcame the strong opposition of his relatives to grant his slaves their freedom in his will. Only a decade earlier, such an act would have required legislative approval in Virginia. He suspected the country would eventually come to its moral senses and find the notion of owning other human beings repugnant, says Joseph Ellis, author of the bestselling Founding Brothers. "He knew his legacy depended on it. He knew that we were watching."

Yet how should we view other framers of independence such as signer of the Declaration of Independence Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry, who traded and whipped their slaves? Or James Monroe, who, as governor of Virginia in 1800, after rushed trials, executed nearly 30 slaves after an attempted revolt? For some historians, such actions cloud their legacy. "The other founders resisted emancipation, not because it was a mad scheme but because they did not want to relinquish the wealth which slave sales poured into their coffers," says Wiencek.

Other scholars believe the Founding Fathers can best be seen squarely within their time. "To contextualize is not to excuse," says Rutgers University historian Jan Lewis. "It's to show the complexity." Understanding the early leaders' severe lapse in judgment over slavery, say Lewis and other historians, makes their ability to found a new and democratic nation all the more incredible.

This story first appeared in the January 12, 2004 edition of US News and World Report.

How Sysco came to monopolize most of what you eat.

Ulrich Boser 0

A hot dog from Yankee Stadium. Potato latkes from the Four Seasons in Manhattan. Sirloin steak at Applebee's. The jumbo cheeseburger at the University of Iowa Hospital. While it would seem these menu items have nothing in common, they're all from Sysco, a Houston-based food wholesaler. This top food supplier serves nearly 400,000 American eating establishments, from fast-food joints like Wendy's, to five-star eating establishments like Robert Redford's Tree Room Restaurant, to mom-and-pop diners like the Chatterbox Drive-In, to ethnic restaurants like Meskerem Ethiopian restaurant. Even Gitmo dishes out food from Sysco. Should you worry that one source dominates so much of what you eat?

Like any retailer, chefs need wholesalers that distribute goods cheaply and efficiently, and Sysco's 400,000-plus item catalog conveniently sells everything a cook needs to run an eating establishment. A little more than half of their products are brand names like Parkay and Lucky Charms. The rest are Sysco-packaged items like 25-pound bags of rice, half-gallons of salsa, boxes of plastic gloves, beer mugs, dish-washing detergent, not to mention 1,900 different fresh and frozen chicken products. Whatever a cook orders is delivered straight to the kitchen door at bottom-barrel prices: One Sysco invoice I got my hands on has a 25-pound bag of Uncle Ben's Converted Rice selling for $20.95, or about 84 cents a pound, while a 1-pound box bought through Amazon Grocery costs $2.09.

All of that seems relatively innocuous—restaurants need to make a profit, after all. But Sysco also hawks pre-packaged food. While chefs have long relied on shortcuts like freezing and using canned goods like beans and tomatoes, it's entirely different to pass off one of Sysco's thousands of ready-made items—ground beef burritosvegan tortellini,quiche Lorraine pietiramisu cake—as homemade.

The ingredients alone on some of the pre-made items are enough to make a restaurant-goer swear off eating out. Thebreaded cheese chicken breast, for instance, contains monocalcium phosphates, sorbic acid preservatives, and oleoresin in turmeric. The Serve Smart Chicken is particularly frightening. While it looks natural, it consists of parts of other chicken breasts mashed together into a single, chicken-breastlike block. As the company notes on its Web site, our "unique 3-D technology gives you the look and texture of a solid muscle chicken breast, at a fraction of the cost. … Available in four great flavors: teriyaki, BBQ, fajita and original." What Smart Chicken tastes like, I'd rather not know.

Restaurants make a mint from serving these pre-prepped foods, since the meals can be purchased in bulk and stored in a freezer for months. A box of 36, 4-ounce chicken Kievs, for instance, can be kept in an icebox for up to 180 days. And the savings from labor costs are considerable. Each reheated Angus country fried steak will bring in almost $5 in profits. In the words of Sysco, these meals require nothing more than the ability to "heat, assemble, and serve."

It comes as little surprise that institutions like hospitals, universities, and military bases flock to Sysco's pre-cooked foods. But well-regarded bistros and pubs have also begun to offer such items to save time and money. Recently, New York magazine reported that Thomas Keller uses frozen Sysco fries at his Bouchon bistros. (While a company spokeswoman wouldn't confirm the brand, she confirmed the use of frozen fries.) Mickey Mantle's Restaurant, an upscale sports bar, serves Sysco's pre-made soups, like Manhattan clam chowder and vegetarian black bean. And then there's Edgar's restaurant at Belhurst Castle, which has won numerous awards of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. There, the kitchen takes Sysco's Imperial Towering Chocolate Cake out of the box, lets it defrost, and then sprinkles it with fresh raspberries before serving it to diners. "We've had a lot of success with that cake," executive chef Casey Belile says. The Edgar's menu, of course, does not list the dessert as a Sysco pre-made cake, but it does charge $8.95 for the experience.

The company has a long history of championing frozen foods. Sysco founder John Baugh has been quoted as saying, "frozen foods taste better than anything I could grow in my garden." He started the company in 1969 when he saw an opening in the food services marketplace for a large, national distributor that would beat out local competitors through its sheer size. At the time, Baugh owned a small frozen-food company in Houston, and he convinced eight other regional food distributors to join forces to form a national conglomerate. Within a year of its start, Sysco posted more than $100 million in sales, and for the next 30 years, snapped up more than 150 local food distributors, becoming the largest in the nation. The company is about 50 percent larger than its next-largest competitor and five times bigger than the third-largest player; its boxes and cans are now as common in restaurant kitchens as salt and flour. A very partial listing of its better-known customers can be found here.

Some obvious food trends have helped Sysco's rise to Wal-Mart-like dominance. In 1970, households spent 34 percent of their food budget on dining out, compared to almost 50 percent today. And as small, local farms have closed down to make way for strip malls, restaurants increasingly depend on regional and national food processors to supply them with basic ingredients. While Sysco has smartly capitalized on all of this as the middleman between individual food distributors and the kitchen door, it's also earned the ire of gourmets, who portray the company as a leviathan that destroys local economies—and good taste.

But many quality restaurants, like Tree Room, use Sysco responsibly—shying away from pre-made items they can disguise as their own. Bardia Ferdowski of Bardia's New Orleans Café in Washington, D.C., purchases only raw and unprocessed Sysco products such as flour, potatoes, and beef, and receives frequent deliveries so that ingredients are as fresh as possible. For its part, Sysco has also been upping the quality of some of its offerings. It now distributes more locally grown meats and produce, and teams up with companies like artisanal cheesemongerMurray's to deliver specialty foods. Chef Tom Hosack of Hudson's at the Heathman Lodge in Vancouver, Wash., for instance, buys most of his greens through Sysco, and they're almost all regionally grown.

And not every cook has the time—or the money—to spend every afternoon foraging for fresh heirloom tomatoes at the local farmer's market. Nor do they need to. Many of Sysco's products—the meat, the vegetables, the fruits—are not that different than what you'll find at your local supermarket. But no restaurant diner should pay a chef to defrost and heat. Cooks are called cooks for a reason.

This article first appeared in Slate in 2007.