On deception. Or why it makes sense to keep trusting

Harrington - "Deception"

The book „Deception“ (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2009), edited by Brooke Harrington (MPIfG, economic sociology) offers a wide variety of perspectives on deception. The contributors have put together their views from various disciplines, e.g. „Dealing with deception in biology“ (C. T. Bergstrom), „Paltering“ (F. Schauer and R. Zeckhauser), „Thoughts, Feelings and Deception“ (M. T. Frank), „Why most people parse palters, fibs, lies, whoppers and other deceptions poorly“ (M. O’Sullivan), „Digital Doctoring: Can we trust photographs?“ (H. Farid), „Digital Deception: The Practice of Lying in the digital age“ (J. T. Hancock), „Cognitive Hacking: Detecting Deception on the Web“ (P. Thomson), „Leaps and Lapses of Faith“ (G. Möllering), „Crocodile Tears, or Method acting in Everyday life“ (T. Lutz), „Deception and Trust in Health Crises“ (F. Rowan), „Responding to deception: The case of fraud in financial markets“ (Brooke Harrington) and, finally, „The pleasures of lying“ (K. Fields). One the one hand, the book “Deception” broadens the theory of action since it offers fresh insight into one important aspects of human action, it shows complexity of action theory, though it is readable for a broad public, and the insights are applicable to many contexts of contemporary society. On the other hand, the book also deserves some critical commentary.

First, what is deception? For instance, recently I took my parrot to the veterinarian, because it looked very sick, and I hardly believed my eyes when I arrived at the appointment: Within a 30 minute drive, my bird’s appearance had changed to pure livelihood. When I asked the doctor about the reason for the tremendous change in the bird’s appearance, he explained that parrots ‚just do that‘ because they will make any effort to appear strong to predators. But can deception in animals be compared to deception in humans? What does it take to deceive? Can people be deceived by technology? Can they be deceived by institutions or even by the state? Can deception ‚just happen‘, that is, does it make sense to speak of deception without an act of deception? Can deception occur when there is no deceiver? I would prefer to confine a definition of deception to humans and to specific contexts. Wikipedia offers this definition of deception:

an act of convincing another to believe information that is not true, or not the whole truth as in certain types half-truths, involving concepts such as propaganda, distraction and/or concealment


And Wikipedia defines fraud as

an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual.

Editor Brooke Harrington refuses to give a definition of deception and prefers to introduce a distinction between deception and lying:

„Unlike lying, which involves intent to promulgate a falsehood, a deception can take place without either intent or awareness on the part of a deceiver.“ (p. 3).

Harrington suggests that deception ‚just happens‘ and does not require a deceiver, an intent to deceive or awareness on the part of the deceiver. I was surprised by this approach to deception. So, I will give a short summary of a few chosen contributions and then add a few critical comments.

„Paltering“ (Schauer/Zeckhauser) is a form of deception the German language does not even have a word for. Paltering involves practices such as fudging, twisting, bending, stretching, slanting, exxagerating, distorting, whitewashing and selective reporting. The American Heritage dictionary defines paltering as acting insincerely and misleadingly. Whereas a liar is an actor who intentionally utters words that he or she knows are false, where what is uttered is literally false, and where utterancee of the literally false words produces the effect in the listener believing in the truth of something that is in fact not true. A palter can be distinguished from a lie in two dimensions: First, a palter need not be literally false, it may just misleading such that the listener gets a false impression. Second, a palter seems to be only a little less harmful than an ordinary lie. Accusing someone of paltering falls short of accusing someone of being a liar. The difference between a palter and an outright lie is a matter of gradualness rather than a different type of action: A claim such as „I did not have sexual have sexual relations with that woman“ has an element of deniability since the palter, unlike the liar, can claim to be misunderstood. The manifold practices of paltering involve a wide range of non-disclosures, half-truths and evasions which in many cases involve harm to other people, e.g. larceny, the act of obtaining property by false pretenses, it is extremely difficult for the law to penalize palter. Though the law is broadening, it still remains a narrow and rarely used weapon against paltering. Interestingly, the authors use the term paltering both for the harmless act of booking a dinner table at a restaurant using their Ph.D. as a Doctor’s title and for acts of financial fraud severely damaging other people. While the former act is nothing more than impression management, the latter can have severe economic, reputational and legal consequences.

The following two chapters are devoted to psychological approaches to deception. In „Thoughts, Feelings and Deception“, M. T. Frank offers a psychological approach to the act of deception and deconstructs the micromechanisms in which facial muscles give away would-be deceivers. Frank shows how the detection of deception depends on attention to both contexts and behavioral patterns, focusing on coherence of the content on the one side and signals the face, the voice and body on the other side rather than spotting just one indicator. Biases – the tendency to be too suspicious or too trusting – can play tricks on the observer. Leading to what Ekman calls the „Othello error“: Like Shakespeare’s tragic hero, lie detectors who disbelieve truthful witnesses may make them appear anxious and fearful and hence make them appear as if they were acting deceptively. A lie catcher must pay attention whether signs of fear he appears to observer really reflect fears of a person caught lying or rather the fear of an authentic actor who fears to be disbelived. The „Othello Error“ thus refers to a person who invites deception due to his own distrust. A second type of error is called the „ideosyncrasy error“, the inability to observe a person’s typical style of behavior and judge his or her statements accordingly. People who are shy, have low self-esteem often avoid eye-contact in conversations; and in some cultures, eye-contact is regarded as disrespect. Observers who misinterpret lack of eye contact as lying do get tricked into misinterpreting an honest person’s signals as lying. In law enforcement situations, trust is suspended – not ended, not requested, but simply suspended, writes Frank (p. 72). I would call this an extremely idealized view because law enforcement is by definition a situation of power, and a suspicious attitude is the natural attitude on the side of those involved in law enforcement.

In „Why most people parse palters, fibs, lies, whoppers and other deceptions poorly“, (M. O’Sullivan), goes deeper into the subject of interaction on deception by examining an „elite group“ of „truth wizards“, that is, a group of research participants who were found to have unusually and consistently high accuracy in detecting deception in others. Spotting deception does not only require close attention to contexts and details within interaction settings, it also carries the burden of „accusatory reluctance“, a hesitancy to risk destroying a relationship by articulating their suspicions that someone is acting deceptively.

Three essays in the volume are devoted to the relationship of deception and technology, or rather, to the relationship of deception and the media of digital photography and the internet. In „Digital Doctoring: Can we trust photographs?“ H. Farid turns to fraud in photographs and asks for the trustworthiness in digital photography due to the development in digital photography: Can we trust our senses when photographs are digitally doctored such that heads and bodies are mixed and matched, lighting is changed, content is added by the copy-and-paste-method for „dramatic effects“, fraudulent and fake images are created. Photography, though, has undergone a tremendous change with its shift from mechanic photography to digital photography. Photography is a process of creating pictures by recording light on a sensitive medium, e.g. a photographic film or sensor during a timed exposure, and further technological processes (development) and a print on paper. At every single stage, the photographer can take influence on the result. Traditional photograhy is no less prone to manipulation than is digital photography, only the technology has changed with the transition to the digital age. Moreover, the judgement that a picture is authentic or fraudulent makes sense only in contexts where photographs are produced to reflect reality, e.g. in journalism and historical archives.

In „Digital Deception: The Practice of Lying in the digital age“ by J.T Hancock gives examples of deception in the online world. Hancock argues the properties of communication technology influence how honest or disclosive we are, thus internet technology influences frequency and the content of deception (p 110). Digital deception, writes Hancock, occurs when the intentional control of information in a mediated message to create a false belief in the receiver of the message. But digital technology does not make it users become premium liars perse. However, due to the „stranger on the train“ effect he observs a tendency that internet users reveal highly intimate details about themselves, e.g. in message boards, blogs and computer mediated therapy. Hankcock holds that internet technology enables deception in the practices of impression management on the one hand, and honesty and self-disclosure on the other (p 115). For instance, internet users develop an elaborate impression management on SNS such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. On dating websites, users doctor their photos. Men claim to be a bit taller, women slimmer (p. 112 f). However, Hancock makes no systematic distinction between pure impression management that uses technology to slightly overwork one’s online identity, and harmful deception, e.g. spamming, destructive code (e.g. botnets), and phishing (stealing user credentials and/or financial information that severely damage other users. Moreover, the foundations for harmful deception should be attributed to practices and the character of internet users rather than internet technology.

P. Thompson devotes his essay „Cognitive Hacking: Detecting Deception on the Web“ to the detection of deception online. By cognitive hacking, Thompson, refers to an attack on a computer information system that relies on altering human users‘ perceptions and corresponding behaviors. Psychology and communication studies have identified characteristic cues of deceptive interpersonal communication. Several disciplines now engage in detecting deception online: intelligence and security informatics, forensic linguistics, inferring an adversary’s intent, adversarial information retrieval online, threats to the insiders of online deception. Since the internet is an evolving global technology infrastructure, new forms of deception and professional knowledge to detect them evolve simultaneously, and several nation states prepare for cyber-warfare. The failure to distinguish between impression management and playful use of technology one the one hand (e.g. fake accounts on SNS and Twitter) and harmful deception damaging real people in online social life on the other hand is one weakness of this contribution; another weakness is that the author seeks competencies in detecting deception on the web only in professional circles, not in those of experienced and engaged internet users.

G. Möllering explores the relationship of trust and deception in his essay “Leaps and lapses of faith”. Modern life, writes Möllering with a quote from Georg Simmel, is based upon faith and trust in the honesty of the other to a much larger extent than we usually acknowledge, and under modern conditions, a lie becomes much more devastating as something which questions the very foundations of our life. But is trust not a dangerous condition on the side of the trustor? Erving Goffman and Paul Ekman have emphasized that trust makes us prone to being duped and mislead, suggesting that trust is an invitation to deception and deception will destroy trust. Though it appears intuitively that trust is “good” and deception is “bad”, this is a one-sided view, there can be also situations where deception is beneficial. Trust is a “psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions and behavior of another” (p. 139). Trust is risky because something important is at stake and failure is possible. Yet, trust is irreducable to calculation. Trust is conditional on vulnerablity: Speaking of trust makes only sense if trust can be exploited to the damage of the trustor. Yet, the trustor no longer expects to be harmed. However, contrary to a widespread misconception, trust is not a willingness to be hurt. “Trust is not about avoiding or eliminating vulnerability, or resigning to it, but about positively accepting it.” (p. 140). Moreover, trust is never a purely dyadic relationship of two isolated actors, trust emerges within a context, it has a history, and third parties take influence. Möllering defines deception as “the deliberate misrepresentation of an actor’s activity, intentions and behaviors as well as the distortion of facts relevant to the relationship between actors” (p. 141). The deceived is not simply given wrong information but is also kept deceived about the actual knowledge and the intentions of the deceiver. The deceiver strives to get the upper hand and to move the deceived parties to act in ways that contradict their own intrests. Thus, deception can be clearly distinguished from irony, playing games or impression management. When it comes to a trust relationship, the trustor depends on signals of trustworthiness on the side of the trustee. These signals, can, of course, be deceptive. Of course, there are limits to deceptive signals in a trust relationship: “No poisoner seeks to demonstrate his honesty by drinking from the poisoned chalice”. (p. 143). It makes to sense to speak of trust unless the trustor makes the leap of faith, that is, he puts aside his doubts and interacts with the trustee as if a critical situation was already favorably resolved. The leap of faith on the side of the trustor is essential to enable positive social interaction; simultaneously, the trustor opens the door to potentially harmful deception at a later stage. Only in an atmosphere where trust is highly valued and deception causes damage – and outrage – trust can unfold its “almost compulsory power”, not in an atmosphere where a deceiver can take pride in his deceptive acts. In an atmosphere of trust, the trust giver lives “as if certain rationally possible futures will not occur” and “as if the uncertain future actions of others were indeed certain”. So, does a trusting atmosphere lure the trust giver into self-deception? No, argues Möllering, because trustors can remain aware that they are making a fiction as long as trust and trustworthiness are upheld. Trust rests on a kind “will to believe” on the side of the trustor, it cannot be willed against the sentiments of the trustor’s private sentiments, and it is certainly no licence to deceive.

Investigators have tried to define the nature of deception, differentiating deceptive acts into categories such as paltering, impersonation, self-deception, rumor, misdirection and, of course, outright lies, the category that has the most vibrant social and jurisdictional life. In „Crocodile Tears, or Method acting in Everyday life“, T. Lutz questions the notion of trust and deception as clear-cut categories. Is deception not just all over the place? Do we not deceive in recruiting and job applications, in political campaigning, when negotiating a deal or when we try to get together with a new spouse? With autobiographic anecdotes Lutz argues that getting together with a spouse, of course, involves some degree of method acting, and would not have any chance of success without it. Tears, for example, can be a sign of intense, intimate engagement, but they can also be a means of escape. They can be a sign of honest, intimate love, they can be a sign of demand, and a means of seduction. Most of all, argues Lutz, tears can have elements of truthfulness and deceit at the same time. A binary of trust and deception would not only destroy feelings in social relationships, it would also fail to take into account the complexity of interaction.

In today’s regulatory environment, it’s virtually impossible to violate rules … but it’s impossible for a violation to go undetected, certainly not for a considerable period of time.“ It was not anyone who said this. It was Bernard Madoff, meanwhile jailed for establishing the world’s largest Ponzi scheme, on a panel called „The Future of the Stock Market“ at the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination in New York on Oct 20, 2007. In „Responding to deception: The case of fraud in financial markets“ B. Harrington examines how investors respond after they find out they have been duped. The dupes must undertake repair work in order to participate in social life, including economic activity, again, a process Goffman termed as “adaptation to failure”. Losing money is a distressing experience, and people who discover they have been fleeced usually turn to private means of identity repair. They rarely go to the authorities for legal redress because doing so means public exposure (and humiliation) as dupes (p. 237). But Goffman’s analysis stops short of giving a more comprehensive analysis of adaptation to failure. Why theory of action posited action as the basis of social life, inaction (e.g. not calling police, not going to court) needs explanation. So, why do investors sustain their participation in financial systems even though they know they are corrupt or fraudulent? How do actors make themselves knowingly complicit to those who want to cheat on them. Do people sometimes want to be deceived? Or is reality just too hard to bear? The new class of investors who engaged in financial investment since the 1990s have largely stayed put even though they have been confronted with the Dot-Com-Bubble, Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme and other financial frauds. Harrington conducted interviews in retail investors and found three types of reaction in investors who had been duped: resignation, denial and self-blame. Instead of pulling back their money they continue to participate in a financial system that has proven itself corrupt, and they reframe their collective identity, either casting themselves as knowing accomplices, or by denying deception altogether. Brooke Harrington gives a pessimistic outlook: American investors will not retreat from financial markets, not because they are convinced of the trustworthiness of financial markets, rather because they have no alternative to invest due to structural reasons.


On the one hand, the book “Deception” is delightful reading. Its contributions differ not only in academic perspectives but also in terms of their fundamental understanding of deception. So „deception“ invites to think broadly about deception, its forms and consequences. Deception is related to cooperation, to technology, to institutions and to functional systems of society. It is great to have more and more books that that are nicely written and invite average reader to reflect their action in a systematic way. Thus, the volume on “Deception” can be read as “theory of action” by social scientists, and it can be read for its practical implications by a broader public. On the other hand, the Brooke Harrington’s volume “Deception” also deserves some critical comments, because some contributions are very broad in their concept of deception. The following examples may illustrate what I find problematic: My parrot, for instance, cannot be a deceiver, because an animal cannot act with intent. A bird cannot even recognize that a human is not a predator. Thus, my bird was cheated upon by its own genetic program. A job applicant who has his pimples doctored away by means of digital photography is not a deceiver unless the pimples are relevant to the specific job. A Ph.D. who takes his girl friend to a restaurant and does not intervene when the service calls him “Doctor” (knowing doctors have higher incomes than young Ph.D) is not paltering unless he deliberately uses the misunderstanding for not having to pay for his bill. And it is misleading to speak about deception when an entrepreneur fails to finish a project on time because too many odds prevented him from fulfilling the expectations. It is fair to speak of failur, but is is unfair to speak of deception as long as the entrepreneur has no intent to cheat. A Public Relatioons department that manipulates a company’s Wikipedia entry is a deceiver. So is a human resources department that breaks into a job applicant’s profile on Social Networking Sites and gets additional data without permission. An athlete who dopes is a deceiver, so is a scientist who fakes empirical data. A fake Marshall McLuhan account on Twitter is pure fun. A ridiculing fake profile of a living person is harmful deception. Technology (not even artificial intelligence such as a bot) can cheat on a real actor, there is a deceiver (person, group, organization etc) who created it. Consequently, I would favor a narrow definition of “Deception”: First, there must be deceiver. Second, deception is an act with intent. Third, the deception must be harmful in the sense that a deceiver misrepresents an actor’s activity, intentions and behaviors or distorts facts relevant to the relationship between actors as to damage a victim or get the victim to damage itself by acting contrary to his or her own interests (see Möllering). Fourth, the damage must be specified: e.g. economical damage, diminished career chances, reputational damage, psychological damage, damage to the physical condition. Fifth, deception takes place within an institutional environment that defines both rules and rule violations. With this definition, deception cannot not “just happen”.

A German saying goes “Man soll nicht päpstlicher sein als der Papst”. (translates: You should not be more Pope than the Pope himself). If our minds were set on deception alone, if we would concentrate our efforts on the detection of fraud, if we are no longer able to distinguish between a flattering exaggeration or minor fraud and a case of harmful deception, we soon live in a very sober world. If we we smell deception everywhere, we will soon develop a weary attitude toward other people and toward society. We will prefer to take matters in our own hands rather than relying on anybody else, we would not call anyone for help even if help was badly needed. We would become unable trust and, before long, others would no longer trust us. But once distrust (a skeptical, weary attitude, risk adverse behavior) and power (potential to use sanctions) become the dominating model of how to “manage” things whereas trust is misunderstood as ignorance, we are on our best way toward a distrusting society. A distrusting society, however, would be a perfect nightmare. It would make social division of labor inefficient, and our institutions would stop functioning.


Eine Antwort zu “On deception. Or why it makes sense to keep trusting

  1. Pingback: Leseempfehlungen zum Wochenende « sozlog

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