Why Liars Make Better Writers: A Side Note to Jonah Lehrer

Studies insist half of all people fib at least twice a day. Still, it's consistently creative people, not corporate publicists or teenage babysitters that rank the highest. Why?
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Earlier this year, Grandpa, the Staten Island Zoo's "slightly psychic" spider monkey prognosticated Newt Gingrich to take the New Hampshire primary. Even as this provoked headlines, the zoological community noted that Grandpa hails from a primate class known to lie.

Not all species are capable of guile. Biologically it's a desirable skill, a stance I have been personally committed to since a psychologist acquaintance recently informed me that "creative writers" fall among the "most evolved group of human liars. Ever."

This particular point was made during a discussion on Jonah Lehrer's resignation from the New Yorker after fabricating Bob Dylan quotes for his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Studies insist half of all people fib at least twice a day; in couples an average 30 percent of all interactions include a falsehood and polls show 70 percent overall would feel comfortable recycling their biggest tall-tale for future use. Still, in studies on lying abound, it's consistently creative people, not corporate publicists or teenage babysitters that rank the highest. Why? Truth is complicated.

"I think the first key is that writers and other creative professionals objectively accept more interpretations of the truth," my psych friend explains.

Both lying and writing are forms of invention. Both require mental dexterity and the ability to read the motives and interests of those around them. Both also assume an understanding of a "theory of mind," the awareness that others possess their own unique consciousness, one you must co-opt if you are to deceive them.

For Capuchin researchers hoodwinking is a bellwether for heightened intelligence, proof of abstract thinking in their subjects. (Researcher places banana in front of Monkey A. Monkey B produces predator warning, enjoys quiet banana time after Monkey A flees.)

Some scientists theorize that for primates, lying is just a spandrel -- a side-effect of, say, competition for food or resource and not a trait on its own. If creative persons are indeed superior at manipulating, it could, by the same logic, be a behavioral effect, one sharpened unwittingly.

As an artist of any kind, some resistance to truth is helpful in protecting subjective personal aspirations. It's no small feat safeguarding inspiration amid what are often disadvantageous social and economic circumstances.

I would also offer that the resilience developed facing persistent creative rejection might explain a necessity for some self-guile, even if it's simply in the spirit of one's own morale.

Rationalization often times feels like the bulk of a writer's real job; it's the glue and file that holds awkward logic together or keeps narratives and characters from becoming implausible. In short, it's what allows us storytellers to back into the truth.

"Creative folks seem particularly strong at the art of reconciling, especially to themselves." My friend explains. Apparently the ego holds an innate need to see our actions as basically honest, "so people who can justify their indiscretions to themselves are likely to do it more. It's just a fact." Comforting to know integrity comes from a primal place.

Standing in line for jury duty the following day I consider what it means to be among the statistically largest perpetrators of deception. The collective takeaway from the likes of Madoff or Deepwater Horizon is that a single underhanded act rarely brings down the farm; it's the surplus of small fallacies. Even Lehrer had one simple explanation for bartering his professional reputation on a few libelous quotes: He had "panicked."

Perhaps it is not just that creative people are better liars, but rather that liars just make up some of our more compelling creative people.

I champion a cultural interest in holding our authors and artists to a degree of accountability, primarily because we have earned it. Paradoxically, this only makes our responsibility heftier because, as James Frey's "memoir" A Million Little Pieces would argue, the truth will always be just one version of the story.

This aptitude for lying overall should only motivate each of us toward a well-polished draft of our own personal code -- one of the more important things we'll ever pen -- and good exercise for our opposable thumbs.

Still in line at the courthouse I am now listening to yarns being spun in favor of quick releases from jury duty. My personal favorite is a guy who insists he cannot miss a dog therapy appointment. Dog therapy guy is granted an exit pass and darts toward the parking lot.

"Is what you said in there true," I ask chasing him down, "I'm just curious."

Apparently deciding a real narc would not have Moleskin, he answers.

"Sort of. I do have a dog. I also have a deadline."

Case in point: Monkey A swings a leg across his Vespa and is gone.

Monkey See.

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