In order to test human responses, some psychologists intentionally lie to volunteers. Is the “science” of manipulation justifiable?
Three psychologists decided to play Orwell’s 1984 with people. They took 54 people and did this to them, according to their paper in PLoS One:
In short, the procedure of the experiment contained five steps: first the participants were shown a film of a kidnapping, and then they filled out a questionnaire about events in the film. After this their answers were manipulated using sleight-of-hand. A discussion about their manipulated answers followed in an attempt to create choice blindness. Finally, a second questionnaire was administered in order to test the effect of the potential choice blindness.
“Choice blindness” they define as “the failure to detect a discrepancy between a choice and its outcome.” They also sought to measure what they call “the misinformation effect,” which they define as a response that “occurs when the recollection of an event changes because new, misleading information about the event is received.” But received from whom? In effect, the scientists created the discrepancy, and fed misinformation to their subjects, in order to get them to doubt their own eyes. Is this ethical?
The psychologists could justify their lying on the grounds that they just want to understand what leads people to deceive themselves. Such knowledge might be useful in criminal justice. Is it any different than parlor games that people play, or magic tricks that stage performers use to misdirect and fool people? Is it any different from government spy programs?
The difference is: this is serious science, published in peer reviewed journals. Scientists need to consider dual use of their “findings.” This paper could further research into the art of making people believe fake news. It harks back to the “psychopolitics” of the former Soviet Union, whose leaders sought to master the art of mass deception. Is it right to lie for a good cause? If so, how far can a scientist go? The researchers say, “The study was approved by the ethical committee of the Department of Psychology of Lund University and has been conducted according to the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki.” Fine and good, but who is watching the watchers?
Interestingly, this paper begins with a passage from Orwell’s 1984, so the evil regime’s propaganda system was clearly on their minds.
In the novel Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell describes the dystopian Oceania, where the past is constantly updated in order to correspond with the current stance of the Party. Winston Smith, a clerk in the Ministry of Truth, rewrites newspapers and other documents in accordance with the ever-changing statements made by Big Brother and the Party. He incinerates the old versions by throwing them down the memory hole. In this way the memories of the citizens are being imperceptibly manipulated. This sounds like an absurd procedure, but is it impossible to implement? Many would probably argue that they never could be tricked in such a way, but perhaps we overestimate our ability to detect when our memories do not correspond with the way things actually were, even when the manipulation occurs right in front of our eyes.
Their statement “is it possible to implement?” is chilling. It would be one thing to talk about Orwell’s novel in a class and discuss how to avoid self-deception. It is an entirely different matter to practice 1984 on people. Even if you tell them afterwards what you did, you intentionally deceived them for a period of time without their knowledge. It wouldn’t work to warn them in advance, “We’re going to lie to you.” That might spoil the “findings.”
Another psychologist writes in The Conversation about “The science of saying sorry.” Richard Stephens, a “Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Keele University” and affiliate of the British Psychological Society, looks at which kinds of apologies are most effective. His motives seem noble; everyone needs to apologize from time to time, and they might as well do it right. But is this a matter of “science”? Can’t a preacher or rabbi handle this from common human experience and from principles of sacred writings? Can’t experts in moral philosophy bring us wisdom of sages from the ages? Do we need a psychologist to give the imprimatur of science on a matter of personal ethics?
To err is human, that much we know. But if you are going to apologise, you’ve got to do it right. Thanks to social science research there is now sound, evidence-based advice on how best to deliver a successful apology – whether you’re famous or not.
Noting his focus on delivery instead of content, we find Stephens giving tips for “what works” rather than what’s right. Science cannot speak to morals. Morals come prior to science. No science is credible unless it is delivered honestly by someone committed to telling the truth. But you don’t have to be honest or moral to follow Stephens’ guidelines. You don’t even need to be truly sorry. You can memorize techniques to get the desired reaction.
Stephens makes it clear he is not interested in truth. He ends by giving guidelines for manipulating opinions in our ‘post-truth’ era.
But in line with the “post-truth” moment in history, some further research suggests that apologists need not focus their efforts solely on things they have personally screwed up.
A fascinating Harvard Business School study from 2014 showed that apologising for things that aren’t your fault can also be an excellent means of garnering trust.
The ends justify the means. Say the magic words, in effect, to manipulate people. Follow his steps to garner trust, whether or not that trust is deserved.
Stephens ends with a jab at Donald Trump: “after all, he is spending most of his time pressuring others into saying sorry.” Don’t wait for Stephens to say he is sorry for pretending to be a scientist.
As willing agents of the Ministry of Truth, psychologists will soon realize they defeat their purpose by revealing their tricks in scientific journals. They will continue their ‘research’ on captives in the Ministry of Love, but send the results directly to Big Brother. They will be wiser than O’Brien, who spilled the beans to Winston. You don’t explain your lies to your victims. You just lie. “How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?“
Thankfully, there is a Being who cannot be manipulated. Paul said that in the last days, evil men and imposters would grow from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived (II Timothy 3:13). More people will follow the father of lies, Satan, who was a liar from the beginning, as Jesus described him (John 8:44). But truth will never fully disappear down the Memory Hole, because the God of Truth lives and will prevail.
The worst form of lying is self-deception. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).