They say there is “no fool like an old fool.” I may be an old fool, but I am now being fooled in entirely new ways.
Despite my injured knee, I went out onto the tennis court in the San Diego sun today to practice. Mainly, I focused on one important, simple, yet difficult skill: keeping my eye on the ball all the way onto the racquet and then, a split second beyond that, keeping my eye fixed on the point of contact. If you would like to see what this looks like in a professional tennis player, watch a slow motion video of Roger Federer. All the professionals typically do this, but no-one does it more obviously, more consistently, or more effectively than Roger.
Most athletes are aware that watching the ball longer allows you to make any needed adjustments as late as possible. It increases your chances of making good contact. There is a second, and more subtle reason for this technique however. We humans are social animals. We have evolved to be extremely good at reading social signals. One of those social signals we’re expert at is judging where someone else is looking. The “natural” thing for me to do is to intend to hit the ball into a particular place, say deep into my opponent’s backhand corner. And, the “natural” way to do this is to look right into that corner an instant before I hit the ball. Then, I will easily see where the ball actually goes. Unfortunately, this increases the chances that I will mis-hit the ball. More importantly, it signals to my opponent where I am intending to hit the ball. They can tell from my gaze where the ball is headed, at least roughly, much sooner than they can by tracking and extrapolating the path of the ball. The trick which I was practicing today was to simultaneously have a clear intentional target but keep my eyes on the point of contact. Keeping your eyes on the point of contact still leaves plenty of time to then look over and see where the ball is going and how your opponent is moving toward it.
Not “telegraphing” your punches is vitally important in boxing and other martial arts. Similarly, a good basketball player will try to “fake” one direction and go another. A good football play often hinges on misdirection. In fact, in any sport in which the players interact in real time, avoiding doing anything to “signal” what you’re about to do is crucial. In baseball, for instance, if pitchers are not careful, they may develop a habit of giving away the pitch they are about to throw.
In sports which do not involve this kind of direct interaction such as weight lifting, hurdling, pole vaulting, shot putting, bowling, etc. there is no need to “fool” your opponent about your intentions. No pole vaulter thinks, “I’m going to run real slow down the runway so my opponent thinks I won’t be able to clear the bar. Then, I’ll put on a burst of speed at the last second and clear it! They’ll all be so surprised!” No.
Conversations among friends generally involve people sharing news or information or feelings in a straightforward way. You tell a story about what happened to you because you want to share the experience with your friends. You might introduce humor or some exaggeration, but if the whole purpose of your stories is to manipulate your friends into doing something that’s for your benefit, you won’t keep many friends for very long. Conversation is supposed to be a cooperative enterprise.
On the other hand, in other venues such as courtrooms and debates, skilled speakers may try various tricks, not aimed at working together to share information in order to reach a more profound or broader truth, but to manipulate someone into doing what the speaker wants; e.g., to confound the opposing debater and win the trophy or, more seriously, to render a “not guilty” verdict and to let the murderer walk.
I love acting. In acting, of course, I play a role and my intention is to be believable. In this case, I am not only saying things that are false, I am faking everything. I am pretending to do things I am not really doing (e.g., drinking whiskey but it’s really tea), speaking lines with absolute sincerity that are complete lies, and expressing feelings that I may not be feeling at all. There is some sense in which I “believe” in the story I am participating in, but I’m willing to bet that if I’m in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest and the theater curtain catches fire, I will not run for the fake phone, imagine hearing a dial tone and place a pretend call to the fire department and then engage in a conversation with an imaginary fire department dispatcher. I will dial 911 on my iPhone.
We put up with this “dishonest charade” because everyone knows its for entertainment purposes. As you may recall from history class, plays were not always regarded kindly by custom or law. Some religious regimes have banned or regulated stage plays.
Personally, I love watching live theater as well as participating. I believe that overall, it has beneficial impacts on society by showing other ways that things could be. But theater is only positive so long as everyone is clear that these are fantasies, not realities. (Even if a play rests on historical fact as its basis, it will still be a vastly simplified account from one angle). We are basically all in this together. And the more people that inhabit the planet, the closer we all get. None of us can know everything. We must rely on each other in order to make our complex system work. It’s fine to play “what-if” games for entertainment or as part of a scenario planning process. But we should never mislead each other about whether something is a fantasy or a truth or something partially true. Are there exceptions?
Yes. One can generate scenarios in which a lie can save someone’s life. An obvious example: your depressed friend comes to your apartment agitated and asks for your gun so they can kill themselves. Your gun is right under your pillow. Instead of locating it for them, you lie, “I don’t own a gun! Why would I? Anyway, sit down here and tell me why you’re so upset.”
It is sometimes fun to play harmless pranks on people although even these have a tendency to go awry. I recall a kid at YMCA camp saw one of our cabin-mates approaching and decided it would be really cool to scare him by jumping up and screaming like a wildcat just as he opened the door. The unsuspecting camper-to-be-pranked (in a primitive 10 year old way) pulled open the door. The “practical joker” sprang up all of about two inches before hitting his head on a protruding nail. Instead of screaming like a wildcat, he screamed like a wounded ten-year old.
While I love acting, I do not really enjoy scamming people or fooling them for my benefit. I really think it’s really bad. Our information and actions are so interconnected and interdependent that every positive or negative thing you do has completely unseen ramifications. If you lie, even a little, you have no idea how gigantic those implications might be 25 steps removed. In other words, there is no such thing as a “harmless lie” because every lie has a cost. That cost is hard to predict.
I did, nonetheless, break this general rule on rare occasion. My older cousin Bob kindly demonstrated the general concept by conning me repeatedly. Eventually, I wised up. But not before being tricked into doing things against my own interest just for Bob’s amusement.
I spent two of my teen summers as a counselor at a camp (e.g., a Rotary Camp) for kids with special needs. This was a coed camp on the shore of a beautiful lake (Let’s randomly call it “Rex Lake” for convenience). We took kids out on motorboats, canoes, and rowboats. We played kickball, sang camp songs, swam like every other camp. Since the camp was coed, so were the counselors. One of the women counselors my age was headed to one of the prestigious “Seven Sisters.” Let’s just pick one: Bryn Mawr. She was very well read and intelligent. I bring this up because, despite her intelligence and knowledge, she was one of the most gullible people I’d met, up to that point in my life. I probably would never have had occasion to discover this if left to my own devices. At least, I like to think that.
I must explain that the “boy counselors” (yes, only the boys) went to this camp a week early to refurbish it. We peeled old paint, applied new paint, washed windows, replaced light bulbs, scrubbed floors, etc. Though pretty hard labor, much of it allowed us to talk. I heard many stories about this woman (let’s call her Susan) because she had been a counselor before. So, a week before I actually met her, I was told a number of stories about her. For example, one of the daily chores was to sweep the shiny red floor of the recreation room. A long handled, black-brushed broom provided the main tool along with “sweeping compound” which consisted of oil and sawdust and had a very sweet odor to it. The camp counselor, let’s still call her Susan, found sweeping more enjoyable, apparently, when done bare-foot. When my companion counselor happened upon her, his brain immediately hatched a plot. “Oh, my God, Susan! You stepped in the sweeping compound with bare feet! Go see the head counselor (let’s call her Gracie) at once! She’ll have to rush you to the hospital for immediate treatment!”
Meanwhile, Gracie was serving tea to some would-be potential donors to the camp. Normally, we counselors would knock politely on the door to Gracie’s tiny ivied cottage. Instead, Susan turned the knob, threw open the door and yelled, “Gracie, I stepped in the sweeping compound!” Gracie lowered her teacup gently onto the crystal table, turned to Susan and asked, “So?”
Susan purportedly next said, “But I mean, I stepped right in it barefoot!”
Susan: “Well, I mean, don’t I have to go to the hospital? Isn’t it poisonous?”
Gracie: “No. Go finish sweeping.”
This might have been a “harmless” joke that kept a hundred thousand dollars of donations from flowing to the Rotary camp.
Another lengthy example, while — let’s call him Stan — and I washed a thousand window panes involved convincing Susan that she had accidentally married Stan in a legally binding ceremony. Setting aside for a moment, the cruelty of such a joke, if believed, let’s again remind ourselves that this young woman was intelligent and well read. She was headed, remember, for Bryn Mawr.
Every week, at one of the evening gatherings, each cabin put on a skit. Working with these kids to design, rehearse and perform these skits — priceless. Anyway, according to Stan, she and Stan were in a joint skit with her cabin and Stan’s cabin in which, she and Stan get married. Stan’s older sister (let’s just call her Lynda) played the part of the minister. A day later, Stan approaches Susan all trembly and nervous apologizing for the horrible accident.
Susan said, “What accident?”
Stan claimed, “I am so sorry. I forgot that my sister is an ordained lay minister. That makes our marriage legal. Since I’m catholic, divorce is out of the question. I’m so sorry, Susan. I never meant for this to happen.”
In the world according to Stan, she took this bait hook, line and sinker.
Of course, I didn’t really know this Stan counselor. So, I didn’t take just his word for it. When I met Susan, I probed her about these events and she confirmed that she had fallen for both of these pranks and several more besides. Beyond that, the very first 3 weeks, sad to say, I participated in one of these scams.
Our motorboats ran on gasoline and periodically, we would need to motor over to a nearby dock called (let’s just say) Dusty’s Landing. Typically, one of the counselors would motor over with a bunch of empty gas tanks, obtain and pay for the fuel and motor back to the Rotary Camp. I understood this from the very first week and Susan had been a counselor for two previous years.
Nonetheless, we convinced her that we had changed the procedure and that she was to go out in the middle of the lake and wait there. Dusty would be along any minute as part of his new weekly mobile gas run around Rex Lake. Sigh. What disturbs me even more than being mean enough to have been part of this is that she fell for it.
To fully understand why that was so disappointing, you have to understand that Dusty’s was very much a one-person shop. Dusty himself was quite a character. Probably around 60 at the time, he had some interesting shows of strength he could perform such as plant his hands on the ground and stick both legs straight out in front of him parallel to the floor. He sold all sorts of things besides gasoline in his dusty, musty clapboard store. His was a “convenience store” whose wares included one of my favorites, “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.” Whenever it was my turn to go buy gas, I, like the other counselors, could buy a piece of candy from the change. So I picked the Reese’s. Unfortunately, as I discovered on the way back to our landing, the chocolate was infested with worms. Who knows how long those two cups been sitting there on the dusty shelf?
Anyway, the idea that Dusty would leave shop in the middle of the day is pretty far-fetched to begin with. While the camp had a pretty regular schedule, the shore of the lake was dotted by small mansions whose owners came and went as they pleased. It would be impossible to make any kind of efficient distribution of the gas by having Dusty cruise around the lake to meet people. It made infinitely more sense to have the patrons come to Dusty.
One must also understand, that unlike the case of stepping in “poison” sweeping compound, there was no urgency here. Even if, God forbid, we missed the mythical “Dusty’s gas run”, we could still motor over and get gas the “old-fashioned way.” Moreover, you need to understand that the camp was small. It would take no more than five minutes to find Gracie or another authority to confirm this new procedure. And, Susan had been fooled into so many pranks before. My own role was even more rotten because Susan already had good reason to distrust Stan, but not (yet) to distrust me. So, I really was “feeding the evil wolf” here. I remain more upset though about Susan. Why would she fall for any of these. It’s bothersome, of course, not just because of Susan but because by this time, I knew she had gone to a private school that had the best reputation in the area (let’s call it the Akron area). Come to think of it, this was an all girl’s school. Perhaps the one lesson they were not well-equipped to teach was how treacherous men can be. Then, you would think they would make double the effort, unless, of course, the whole point was to make intelligent sounding wives who were extremely gullible?
Susan is not the only one, of course. Criminals would stop phishing if it didn’t sometimes work. There lots of dishonest people out there. In many cases, they are not just trying to “make a harmless joke” or “get your goat.” They are out to steal your money, rob you blind, get you vote against your own interest, and ultimately to take arms against your neighbors. That’s not for your benefit. It’s not for your neighbor’s benefit. It’s for their benefit.
When someone appears to be sincere in their communications, how can you tell it’s a manipulation? It’s not easy. I have to say, Stan was a pretty convincing liar. I think in the pranks pulled on Susan, she could have reasoned that they didn’t make sense. Would the camp really ask the counselors to sweep the floor where the kids played every day with a deadly poisonous substance? Seems absurd to me, but then it also seems absurd that human beings would knowingly ruin the habitability of their planet. It seems pretty absurd that the people of Flint Michigan would be given poisonous water knowingly.
Just as some people are more gullible than others, some people are much better liars and manipulators than others. Any great salesperson is a great manipulator. They may or may not also be a great liar. In some cases, such as tech sales, a sales person is primarily a problem solver and to a large extent that can apply to other sales people as well. The real sleaze occurs when there is no repeat business.
What sales people can do is read you. For example, a smart sales person (actually, I think Stan became a salesman) may think the best feature of a used car is its engine. But if the sales person is smart they are going to tell you all the wonderful features and see which ones light your fire. Maybe all you care about are the tail fins. Is the sales person going to say, “Oh, yeah, but who cares? Right? They’re just gingerbread. The real nice thing about this car is the engine.” You are the one buying the car. So, they are going to appeal to your values, not try to make you take on their values.
A politician who gives speeches live must be able to “read the crowd.” In a similar way, he will test the reaction of the crowd to various things and see which ones trigger a really good response. Since everyone in the crowd can hear everyone else, it becomes something of a positive feedback loop. Once the crowd as a whole latches onto something, then everyone is even more prone to join in. Reading a crowd, however, is much harder than reading a single individual, up close and personal. For this reason, most politicians, put some kind of control over the setting, the timing, the audience, for their speeches or other events. People who disagree, protest, heckle are really not all that welcome. Some politicians go further and only allow in avid supporters. When this kind of a crowd then appears on TV, viewers at home may assume this is a random cross section of America. No. It is a very select group. “Reading the crowd” becomes much easier within a fairly homogeneous group. A great politician can do it no matter what the group composition or initial position. Though clearly fiction, Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar displays Marc Anthony believably turn the crowd from applauding the conspirators who slew Caesar to searching to destroy them. But even the most mediocre politician can rouse a group who already strongly supports him or her.
The sales person (and the politician) are operating on two levels at the same time. Remember Roger Federer and his watching the ball with his eyes while he is mentally prepared to hit the ball down the line to his opponent’s backhand? Roger knows the plan. But he is not sharing that plan with his opposition.
Although a sales person is not your opponent or your enemy, they do have an agenda. They want to sell you a car, or a house, or a pig in a poke, or a life insurance policy. They are appearing to have a conversation with you and are indeed exchanging information. In the case of the car, they might talk about how reliable the company is, how great the service is (even though it’s never needed) or about how roomy the back seat is. But always, always, while they are watching the ball of the conversation, they also have a very clear intention in their mind to close. If you would like to hear a funny genius at sales discuss this, check out any one of Zig Ziggler’s books or tapes.
A politician often does the same thing. They are trying to manipulate the crowd in some way; to make noise, to scream, to applaud, to go out and vote, and sometimes, on rare occasions in recent American politics, they are actually inciting people to riot or commit actual crimes. One way you can tell a politician is doing this kind of desperate manipulation is to listen to the form of their speech. Unless they are intelligent, being totally occupied with trying to read and manipulate the crowd while they are also talking, will render their speech marred with errors, vagueness, and non sequiturs. They will repeat themselves over and over. By contrast, some politicians are mostly speaking from the heart. Even when their words are crafted partly or solely by professional speech writers, those people know what the politician really believes. If it is real belief, the politician can not only appear glib; they can also probe and respond in a deep way to complex issues. If they are overwhelmed with the dual tasking of manipulation and speaking about something they don’t care about, they will stumble and bumble about, simply repeating, repeating, repeating words and constructing “sentences” that do not really form complete sentences.
That inarticulateness is an important cue but it isn’t a perfect one. Some politicians are smart enough to lie eloquently and still have enough intellectual capacity to try to move you in your beliefs or actions from point A to point B. After all, many politicians have been lawyers and that’s practice. In fact, Congress and car salesman are perceived to be the least honest professions in the United States. (If you’d like to learn more about the demographics of your Congress, you can check it out here).
You would probably be hard-pressed to come up with a belief so whacky that no-one in America believes it. Generally, that’s not such a big deal. It’s been historically difficult for any politician to pull together funding from the “People who believe our brains are in our armpits” Foundation. Until now. Because now, the politician does not have to try to cajole the nut cases from all over the country to a $2500 a plate dinner so they can listen to him blab about how he has long believed our brains are in our armpits and thank God for these brave souls in the audience withstand the daily ridicule of their neighbors to help bring out the real truth. The politician in such a mythical $2500/plate dinner would say he agrees with the audience about the cover-up and he’s sure something stinks. The press does nothing to ensure fair coverage. For the past 50 years, the story scape on this vital topic has been arid, says the politician.
Because this fringe is so scattered however, the logistics make such a dinner unworkable. Until now. Furthermore, there is always the chance that a videotape of his acceptance of this tripe will appear on the evening news. Until now.
Now, the politician does not have to appeal in a traceable way to such fringe groups. Nor, does he have to even communicate with them. Instead, he can pay people to make up stories that support their beliefs, whatever they are, and add in some manipulative message. For example, let’s imagine the politician in question is being investigated by the New York Times for tax evasion. He can have fake stories sent almost exclusively to people who already believe that their brains are in their armpits. “New York Times found guilty of complicit coverup. Newly discovered files confirm the Times knew all along people’s brains were in their armpits but failed to break the story.” This helps the politician’s cause of course, but it can’t be tied back to him. The politician no longer needs to be able to read the crowd. He can have the computer do it for him.
Every time you “like” or “dislike” something on Facebook or retweet on Twitter or google something, a record gets created. Those records are collated over time and compared with the records of millions of other Americans. That can be used by software programs to make a damned good guess as to whether you are part of the .05% of Americans who believe our brains are in our armpits. This process is many times more effective than the most tuned-in politician in history trying to watch people in the physical crowd before them.
Tuning fake news stories to appeal to very small audiences could be used to sway elections. Right now, here in America, and apparently elsewhere, these fake news stories are not aimed primarily at swaying an election. They are aimed squarely at destroying America and other western democracies by exaggerating our differences until we are so distracted and weakened by internal disagreements that we can be taken over without firing a shot.
Susan, now you have lots of company. We will all join you as the New Fools. We will sit in our rowboats in the middle of the lake until past dinner time.