Vital Lies, Simple Truths
VTR Date: June 26, 1987
Guest: Goleman, Daniel
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dan Goleman
Title: “Vital Lies, Simple Truths”
Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.
No one asked me and probably no one gives a hoot. But I’d like anyway to affirm how much, by and large, I really enjoy my own professional lot. Teaching at Rutgers is a source of enormous pleasure, made even more so now by the added rewards of the newly endowed Edythe and Dean Dowling Chair in Communications and Public Policy.
Doing THE OPEN MIND each week allows me to encounter so many of the best and most interesting ideas and intellects of our times. And chairing the motion picture industry’s film rating system continues to be, for me at least, the focal point of truly intriguing exchanges.
And yet…and yet…if I were to be able to choose another task in life, over the years that I’ve been following today’s guest’s reportage in The New York Times there’s been absolutely no question in my mind but that what he does professionally is simply unmatched in intellectual scope, depth and fascination.
For Daniel Goleman writes about the behavioral sciences for The New York Times, comments brilliantly about what are – if the truth be told – some of the most intensely interesting concepts, notions and endeavors that one can imagine…writes about the uses and misuses of memory; about individuals’ stable rather than changing patterns of personality; about the relationship between sex, power and failure; about the roles that aging and a growing sense of our mortality play in diminishing our anxieties in middle age; about the comparative satisfactions of achieving long held goals as opposed simply to avoiding unpleasantness from day to day. And so on and on and on.
Now all of these themes make for extraordinarily interesting reading in the Times…and I would imagine that they make for extraordinarily interesting writing, too. So there’s not much chance that Dr. Coleman will make room for those of us who envy him so. And I hasten also to note that he is much more generous, certainly much less judgmental than many of the rest of us would be. Indeed, I’ve always thought that if I live long enough – and ever take the time to reflect in print on all that I’ve participated in during a fairly active life in the media and the academy – my book will be entitled, “Lie!” and just might be somewhat mean-spirited…while Dan Goleman’s Simon & Schuster book, entitled Vital Lies, Simple Truths, The Psychology of Self-Deception is generously descriptive, rather than pejorative.
“Every act of perception”, he writes, “is an act of selection. In evolution, our survival as a species may have hinged in part to select shrewdly and to deceive ourselves just as shrewdly”. What we don’t do may hurt us, to be sure. But Dr. Goleman is interested in pointing out how vital lies may be as contrasted to simple truths. And so I welcome you here to THE OPEN MIND today and appreciate your joining me and I take this phrase of yours, “how the present paints the past” and turn to your book and see this other phrase, “lies big and small lubricate social life” and I wonder, if in your estimation, there are bigger and better and more lies doing the lubricating these days than in earlier times?
Goleman: I think this is a rare moment in history in that regard because we’re seeing some lies laid bare. I think that government, for example, runs by the tacit assumption that lies are okay. And I think that’s a real problem in democracy. And what we’re seeing now with the hearings on the Contras and Iran I think is a very healthy sign in our society. We’re one of the few countries that can stand to look at its own lies and lay them bare.
Heffner: Of course at other times, at the time of the Watergate Hearings, we were laughed at by many Europeans. Of course lying and deception go on in public life. Why do you think this is healthy?
Goleman: The hearings are healthy because the essence of a democracy is the free flow of information. And the fact that people are being lied to, that information is being withheld, that things are going on that people are not privy to means a democracy is not really working. And the healthy sign is that yes, we look baldly at what’s going on. Or yes, we want to know what Gary Hart did. You know the French and the Europeans thought that it was absurd for us to care about what went on in the bedroom of a Presidential candidate. But because character is so important, you know, it’s that man and that button and that phone that keeps us from disaster. I think that we’ve gotten to the point where we need to know more and more and more about the candidate who is going to be running the country.
Heffner: And yet it’s so interesting that in your book, when you talk about vital lies, simple truths, you’re analytic, you’re not pejorative. You explain the roles that lies play. And…I won’t say accepting, but you see their utility.
Goleman: Well there are some very benign effects from very important lies. We all tell ourselves one lie if we’re healthy and that is, almost everybody believes we’re a little better than they really are…a little kinder, a little more intelligent, a little more skilled, whatever it may be. That’s really the basis of self-confidence and mastery. You have to believe in yourself. And to believe in yourself, you have to forget some things. Like if you’re a salesman and you’re going in for the seventh call of the day and you’ve just flubbed the first six, you didn’t make the sale. You can’t go in to that room and say “Gee, I probably won’t make the sale”, you’ve got to, you know, get your…pep talk yourself…get your spirit up and say the great product, I’m going to make it clear how they need this, I’m going to go in there and make the sale. That’s a sort of a lie, but a very positive lie. It’s the basis of self-confidence. In fact, if people start to become depressed, research shows they see themselves more realistically than people who are not depressed do. And when they’re clinically depressed, very seriously depressed, they only see the negative side. So there’s a very positive way in which we lie to ourselves and I think we lie to each other in small ways which are pretty benign. They don’t really matter.
Heffner: It’s interesting you say benign. You say productive, helpful, and then benign. Where do you draw the line, at what point? Do you find a person who has, for good reasons, productive reasons, blanked out the past, lied to himself, becoming now someone whose little lies have become bigger and more important and perhaps pathological?
Goleman: I think the way to tell whether a lie is benign or not is to look at its consequence. You know you see in the process of say a person becoming an alcoholic, well at first they’re just doing social drinking…there’s nothing wrong with that. And then, well they’re drinking a little earlier and a little more in the day, but they still are working. Well then they drink from breakfast on and they…at least they’re getting to the office. They may not be working. They continue to lie to themselves and lie to themselves about the consequence. In fact, a lot of lying goes on in families of alcoholics or even where there are problems like incest or wife abuse. The way these kinds of things perpetuate themselves is that the family colludes, not to really look squarely at what’s going on, but to look away or to call it something else. And it’s when those lies become a cover for something which is really quite terrible, that you’ve got to look very clearly at what’s going on and name it and deal with it.
Heffner: Where do you come down then personally, not in terms of advice, but again in terms of analysis on the function of lies…let’s say, where do you find that you want to draw the line in a family about lies? What do you teach? Do you teach the social utility and the personal utility of untruths? Or do you teach, in an absolute way, that the truth shall make us free?
Goleman: I think that the important truth shall make us free. But there are lies that parents model for their children which are going to be useful for them to understand. You know when Aunt Tillie who you don’t want to really murder an evening with, invites you out for dinner and you just happen to have another engagement that you concoct on the spot…it’s a useful kind of lie because that’s a social lubricating lie, a white lie. It saves you from mortifying Aunt Tillie by saying, “You know I would rather do anything else but spend an evening at your house” and it lets you get out of the engagement without having to make trouble there…make waves. But that’s fine. But when it gets to matters of substance, then that’s where you really need to draw a line.
Heffner: But you know, I want to ask you as a researcher, someone who has studied the question of untruths, of the blanks in the lacuna in our memories. Would you say, forget now about Watergate and forget about Irangate, would you say that in our personal lives there has been a change in the past several generations that we tend more to move toward the social lie that you talk about? Does the lie about Aunt Tillie or to her, does that loom larger now do you think than it did in family life in America a hundred years ago?
Goleman: It may well be that we’re more accepting of the utility of such things that we were in a more puritanical time. That we see the relative uses of it. And I think that that probably is not for our own good. Because that may be part of a general phenomena at large in society which is more accepting of collusions and I think these collusions are quite dangerous. And they happen all around us. They happen actually in every organization. They happen in corporations. They happen in government and they start with something that goes on in the family. Every family teaches its youngsters three intentional rules. The first rule is “Here’s what we notice”, the second rule is “Here’s what we call it” and the third is “Here’s what we don’t notice”. Those rules are never taught openly. In fact, nobody ever thinks about them. They’re taught just in the flow of things. Every child in being socialized learns those three things. Now if you’re in a family where something terrible is going on…like Mom is really in trouble, she’s an alcoholic and she starts drinking at two in the afternoon and she’s taking in…she’s out cold by three, but the kids say, “Well Mom was in a mood and she had a nip and she’s taking a nap” and make it okay. And so Mom never gets any help. That’s where it becomes quite important to face the truth. But because we model these intentional rules, everyone takes those understandings with them whenever they join any other group. You come to work for XYZ Corporation, “glad to have you” and without it being said, you understand that here at this corporation, “Here’s what we notice”, “Here’s what we call it” and “Here’s what we don’t notice”. And when you look at what’s going on in Wall Street say, with insider trading, or the dumping of toxic chemicals or the kinds of things corporations do like, E.F. Hutton when they were floating their checks to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars a day. That was a profit center. It wasn’t an ethical dilemma or a legal problem until the SEC started to investigate. I think the danger is that our society is more accepting of these kinds of collusions and people don’t want to rock the boat.
Heffner: Why is our society more accepting? That’s, I think, a terribly important question.
Goleman: I suppose it’s part of the general fact that you know we’re more rootless, that we…
Heffner: We’re more…?
Goleman: Rootless. That is we join…when you go to work at a large corporation, it’s rather an anonymous situation. You know the immediate people, you don’t …it’s not like you’re going to work for a small store in a small town. It may be why employees are so willing to pilfer or to embezzle from companies, because it is anonymous. And it’s a way of handling…not a way of handling, but a symptom, I think, of that anonymity. That people will go along to get along. Instead of standing by the values that would matter if they were dealing with someone that were personally important to them.
Heffner: You know, again coming back to government, coming back to society in on the larger stage, there haven’t been many people who have commented on the…well, pragmatic maybe too nice a word to use, but on the very practical approach to achieving our objectives. If we are the department of this or the department of that or the President or the Congress even. Achieving our objectives, that’s the sine qua non and anything that stands in its way is wiped out by lack of memory, but a convenient forgetfulness…and I’m puzzled that there has been so little concentration or so little focus on this. Does this mean that we have more now, even those who are analysts and commentators, accepted a larger social acceptance in turn of the larger lie, the more vital lie?
Goleman: Well, I think that we’re at a time now where oddly enough the real hero is the truth-teller. And the truth-teller is getting rarer and rarer, whether it’s the…you know the DA, the Grand Jury, the investigative reporter or the commentator. The person who’s willing to step back from a web of tacit collusion, tacit going alone, you know the Press Corp and the President. There are certain things the President is never asked, too embarrassing, you don’t want to ask that question. The person who’s willing to bring up that one aspect of things, that one angle, play the Devil’s advocate, is the person who pierces the veil of collusion, the kind of thing that you’re pointing at. You know the mind is so able to ignore…it’s quite stunning, within a quarter of a second you can look away from what you don’t want to see. In fact before the mind registers something it doesn’t…let me tell you about a piece of research. It’s really pivotal…
Goleman: …to my whole understanding. There’s a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who was a psychologist who got from the Department of Opthamology a device that allowed him to track the exact place the eyes fix when they look at something. The eye makes a number of very small movements whenever it looks at anything. And he showed people a set of pictures. One of the pictures, for example, in a foreground had the naked outline of a woman’s torso. And in the background a man reading a newspaper. When he showed this picture to people who were very anxious about sexual matters they did the most remarkable thing. Their eyes fixed on that guy with the newspaper and never went anywhere near the naked torso. Now how could they do that? Well what it means is that the mind is quicker than the eye. Within a tenth of a second, in peripheral vision you pick up something that you don’t want to see and you don’t look there. That happens all the time in many, many ways. What we don’t want to notice we can tune out of before consciously we even know it’s there. It’s repression right in the moment.
Heffner: So that there really is no way of avoiding lies. We seem to do it naturally.
Goleman: Well, there are some facts that are so blatant, so big they’re very, very hard to tune out of. But he nuance…you know a husband and wife are talking and there’s a little edge in the voice and the edge in the voice is having an impact. You know you’re reacting, “Oh, she’s feeling a little edgy”. But you don’t quite know you’re reacting to it. And so you don’t tune into what’s bothering you. That kind of thing goes on all the time and in business what it means is the consequences…the moral implications, the ethical, the legal implications of what people do are very easily tuned out of. You have to make a mental effort to think about it, to bring it up. It’s much easier just to go along with what’s happening.
Heffner: But, you see, that’s what interested me in particular about the analytic approach that you provide in a…not only in the book, but in an article that you wrote as recently as the week in which we’re conducting this program. You quote Theodore Shapiro, a psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School: “Although there is much forgetting that is simply forgetting, a rule of thumb is that the more psycho-dynamically important a memory is, the more prone it is to warping or forgetting altogether”. Now again that’s judgmentless in a sense. Where does the value judgment come in? What you’re describing is something that is a given in human nature. What you’re saying here is that it’s wonderful how the mind works. It eliminates this, it doesn’t see it or it moves so quickly…when you say the mind is quicker than the eye, it’s a beautiful expression. What chance is there for us to find the kind of truthful morality in politics when we ourselves are built in such a way? When our very psychology is given to this sleight of hand?
Goleman: Well, I think that understanding the fact that we can tune out so easily and that we’re prone to tuning out, alerts us to the other capacity, which is that we can voluntarily attend, we can pay attention, we can tune in. We can point to the one thing that is not being said. The most dangerous element of society and the barometer of the level of political repression, just as in the mind, are the questions that can’t be asked. In an authoritarian government, in a dictatorship, the first thing they do is censor the press. They don’t want these things brought up. The first thing that the individual does is repress. That’s what Dr. Shapiro is talking about. The memories that are too loaded, too important and too threatening are the ones that are most easily forgotten or most easily twisted. And in society at large the same thing is true. A repressive government does not want and is very frightened of the free flow of information. But as citizens, as people of the press or as commentators, I think it’s really our obligation to think about what are the questions that aren’t being asked today. What is it that needs to be examined? What is it that needs to be looked at? Who’s being forgotten in all this? Those are the things that really count. It’s both slippery and absolutely essential.
Heffner: But you know, it’s interesting that you say the modern day hero is the truth-teller, the investigative reporter, the whistle-blower. Are you really sure that blowing the whistle brings great praise to an individual?
Goleman: No. Blowing the whistle is probably the most dangerous thing anyone can do. And the reason is that when people joins a group, the tacit understanding, remember, is “Here’s what we don’t notice here”. Along with that is “And in return for you not noticing”, that is for only paying attention to what ostensible what we’re about, you’re one of us, you’re okay. To whistle-blow, to bring up the thing that is not to be paid attention to is to violate that essential understanding. The universal consequence to whistle-blowers is that they get booted out. They get demoted, they get transferred, they get fired, lots of research shows us. In fact, it’s worse in government than in private industry. But about seventy to eighty percent of whistle-blowers suffer immensely. And on the other hand, the paradox is that the whistle-blower, it turns out, is highly loyal to the organization. He’s not doing it or she’s not doing it because they want to get someone, but because they feel the basic mission, the higher ideal of what’s going on Is being violated and they can’t live with that. So their own ethics drive them to tell the truth. But the paradox is that the organization feels betrayed and angry and retaliates.
Heffner: In terms of the thrust of our society, of our lives, is know thyself a notion that is less compelling today or increasingly more compelling? In other words, in terms of your researches, which direction are we going in?
Goleman: I think that the higher use of psychotherapy, for example, is knowing thyself. It’s a self-education process and many people are using it that way. And I think in general it is probably greater than ever because our identities are so, so much less well defined as society becomes more anonymous. And the fact that we know fewer people as life goes on, who have known us for a long time, and so on. We become rootless and adrift. And, I think, that the importance, just for mental health, the importance of knowing who you are, knowing what it is you want out of life, knowing what your real values are, and knowing what it is that you are, perhaps, trying to hide from yourself is becoming a more and more compelling need.
Heffner: But that’s almost a prescription for health. And what I’m really asking begins because of the…of what is going on in the present…in this past year, where words seem to be a means of manipulating others, rather than of ascertaining and expressing the truth. I’m not asking what’s better or best. I’m asking you where you think we are going at t time when words are used, not to reveal truths, but generally to hide them.
Goleman: Yes. I think that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s showing up in the last, oh, twenty years in government that things, you know search and destroy is not search and destroy, it’s “Win the hearts” or whatever the glib phrase is or the neutral bureaucratese that language is used to obscure. And if you remember in George Orwell’s 1984, he has a really brilliant appendix, where he talks about the function of newspeak, the language that was invented by Big Brother. Newspeak offered people fewer and fewer words to describe their experience. There was double plus good, plus good, and good and so on for bad. And that was the whole of positive and negative experience. And the rationale was that by limiting the words and by carefully defining the words that were used in public discourse, you limit the reality, you define the reality. And you obscure what’s really going on, by calling it something else. And we’re in real danger of that happening.
Heffner: Well, I’ve wondered whether digital talk doesn’t really do that to us. That it is essentially obscurantism rather than anything else. I mean the title of this program THE OPEN MIND, it seems to me we are working as a society more and more and m roe to close our minds and to leave, as you suggest, room for less and less.
Goleman: That’s right and I think it’s very important that there be forums where people can really explore ideas in depth. One of the ways in which we’re beginning to suffer newspeak, is newthink, is people are thinking less and less deeply. Ideas are being communicated more and more glibly. Fewer and fewer people are really reading books, for example. And I think that that is another barometer of something happening in the society where people are not considering what’s going on in the deepest way and in the fullest way and in the widest way.
Heffner: Do you think that is at all a function of the fact that we are almost, in this country at least, a quarter of a billion strong or weak, as the case may be? That sheer numbers make us use symbols and the closer we come to using symbols instead of thought, the further away…
Heffner: …we are from the kind of thought that you’re talking about.
Goleman: Yes. I think that mass communication pushes towards symbols. And a symbol is a shorthand for an idea. And an idea is, if it were elaborated, is full of ramifications. A symbol is one simple idea, it’s a headline, it’s not an article. And I think we are coming to think in those shorthands and that the social discourse is being limited in the same way. I think the political discourse by focusing more and more on the image of the candidate rather than the substance of the issue, is doing the same to our political life.
Heffner: Neil Postman did a book in which he begins with the Biblical injunction against pictures and representations rather than “the word”, the experience itself, but that seems to be the direction in which we are going.
Coleman: That’s right, exactly.
Heffner: So that I come back to the question…usually at this table there sits across from me someone, not with an axe to grind ideologically, but someone who’s very much involved in public life. You are, but as a journalist and as a scientist. What’s the level of your optimism concerning this question of which direction we’re going? Or pessimism?
Goleman: Well, these days I think I’m tending a little towards pessimism and the reason is this. There are two absolutely crucial, vital stories on this planet, which are not really being covered. One is the closeness of nuclear war, that the trigger is already cocked.
And the other is the slow death of the planet through ecological misuse of what’s going on. And what that means is that we’re at a very rare, unheralded world historical moment. And that is that in our lifetime or soon, things could end. And yet we live our everyday lives as though nothing had changed. And that I find very, very alarming.
Heffner: A vital lie? Or a simple truth?
Goleman: Simple truth about a vital lie.
Heffner: Dr. Dan Goleman, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND. And I’m going to read you and read you and read you in the Times.
Goleman: A real pleasure. Thanks.
Heffner: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.