The Invention of Lying


in Films and movies, Geek stuff, Rants, Security, Writing

The film Ricky Gervais film The Invention of Lying is based around a fascinating central conceit, but ultimately fails to explore it in an interesting way. The film imagines a world in which people are simply incapable of telling falsehoods, and in which they automatically accept any statement from another person as true. While bits of the film are very funny, it is disappointing that the protagonist who learns how to lie uses it for such uninspired things as cheating at casinos and manipulating the affections of the pretty but dull female lead. Indeed, beyond her appearance there is never any indication of why she is an especially desirable partner. You would think someone with truly awesome powers to manipulate all of humanity might dream up some grander projects than getting rich and rearing children with the woman he happened to meet just before his discovery.

One awkward issue is that people frequently provide bad information for reasons other than deceit. They provide old information, misunderstand things, get bad readings from equipment, and so on. In any functional world, people would need to be able to realize that these sorts of errors occur. Furthermore, this kind of basic scrutiny seems absolutely necessary for the development of science and technology. It is hard to see how people could be capable of parsing out bad information that others provide by accident, while simultaneously being unable to imagine that someone might intentionally tell them something incorrect. As such, Gervais’ world would either be seriously lacking in scientific or technological sophistication or simply be very improbable.

I also think a world without lying would be dramatically different from ours in ways that go beyond dialogue, the procedures at banks, and the kind of films that are made. I doubt that the basic political and social structures in such a world would so closely resemble ours, given the extent to which falsehood and misinformation are fundamental to our political and economic systems, and even our day-to-day interactions. The film never shows much of the world beyond the first world town in which it is set. You have to wonder what the world at large would resemble. For instance, it seems unlikely that dictators could emerge or endure in a world where they needed to be entirely truthful. It is also interesting to imagine what the world of international relations and diplomacy would look like.

The actual invention of lying is what security researchers would call a ‘class break’ – a discovery that renders an entire system vulnerable by creating new sorts of attacks. For instance, while learning the combination to one lock could permit a security breach, realizing that all padlocks of a certain type can be opened with a shim is a class break. Being able to lie to people who would automatically accept anything you claimed as true would be an overwhelming instance of this effect. Indeed, it seems impossible that in a world governed by natural selection, the ability to be deceitful would not spread rapidly, completely eliminating the trusting world that existed before, and which was in an unstable state as soon as lying became possible. You would eventually expect a new equilibrium to arise with key features present in our own world: from mental scrutiny to background checks to legal systems designed to minimize the damage caused by malicious individuals.

In any event, the film prompts some interesting thinking, even if it sticks to a rather conventional romantic comedy structure (complete with the nasty bad guy competing for the trophy woman in question). I suppose the film’s value lies more in the comedy than in really exploring the central concept. Some of the explicitly truthful dialogue is certainly quite amusing, particularly when it occurs in places where we expect white lies, rather than malicious falsehoods, to be told. For instance, the first date between the male and female lead, set in a somewhat fancy restaurant, is perhaps the best part of the film. It is when the most trivial lies are avoided that the most amusement results.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan February 2, 2010 at 8:54 am

Some philological accounts actually do describe a kind of a world prior to lying. Not really the same theme as this film, however. The idea is that in order to “be mistaken”, to say something which is “untrue”, it must be possible to say something about something which describes that something as it is. And, as it turns out, large portions of our language don’t do this. For instance – orders, prayers, immediate expressions of pleasure or pain. These words do not express some “state of affairs” in language, but are symptoms of a state of affairs. We can of course be fooled by such statements, but this is only because we can interpret the connection of our interpretation of the statement to the content of the expression as a veritable reading. This correct or incorrect hearing does have truth or untruth, but without there being truth or untruth in the statement – just as I can misinterpret a natural phenomenon and give a false interpretation does not mean that nature is lying or is capable of truth.

Does anyone know if non-human animals are capable of lying?

Milan February 2, 2010 at 9:31 am

If you interpret ‘lying’ in a broad way, it is endemic in the natural world.

Look at camouflage, ambushes, flies that look like poisonous wasps, animals that pretend to be injured to lure predators, deep sea fish with luminous bulbs to lure other fish into their mouths, fish with spots that look like big eyes on a larger fish, stick insects, etc.

Deceit is a strategy that works, whether consciously or not. As such, it is almost inescapably commonplace in a world of evolved creatures.

. February 2, 2010 at 9:36 am

Lie >> Deception and lies in other species
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The capacity to lie has also been claimed to be possessed by non-humans in language studies with Great Apes. Even Koko, the gorilla made famous for learning American Sign Language has been caught red handed. After tearing a steel sink from the wall in the middle of a tantrum, she signed to her handlers that a cat did it, while she pointed to her kitten. It is unclear if this was a joke or a genuine attempt at blaming her tiny pet. Deceptive body language, such as feints that mislead as to the intended direction of attack or flight, is observed in many species including wolves. A mother bird deceives when it pretends to have a broken wing to divert the attention of a perceived predator — including unwitting humans — from the eggs in its nest to itself, most notably the killdeer.

. February 2, 2010 at 10:00 am

“About 56 of the Old World species [of cookoo] and 3 of the New World species are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. These species are obligate brood parasites, meaning that they only reproduce in this fashion. This behavior has led to the entry of the term cuckold into the English language, which describes a man with an unfaithful wife. In addition to the above noted species, yet others sometimes engage in non-obligate brood parasitism, laying their eggs in the nests of members of their own species in addition to raising their own young…

The cuckoo egg hatches earlier than the host’s, and the cuckoo chick grows faster; in most cases the chick evicts the eggs or young of the host species. The chick has no time to learn this behavior, so it must be an instinct passed on genetically. The chick encourages the host to keep pace with its high growth rate with its rapid begging call and the chick’s open mouth which serves as a sign stimulus.”

Mica February 3, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Whoa. Milan. This is a stupid romantic comedy. It is made for couples to go to a theatre, eat popcorn and make out.

If you expected a deep analytical study of how the world would function, well you were looking in the wrong place.

Watch a different movie, that serves a different purpose.

Matt February 3, 2010 at 5:00 pm

I like Ricky Gervais. The [British] Office is excellent (and, unlike its perpetual American counterpart, has a conclusion) and his standup shows, Animals, Politics and Fame are pretty good as well. The Ricky Gervais podcast is laugh out loud funny, a problem for me because I listen to it at work.

Having said those things, his movies so far are sub-par. Ghost-town and the Invention of Lying are both predictable romantic comedies which have been made a million times before. I find it disappointing that none of his signature comedy makes any appearances in these films.

. June 3, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Saints may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying. We lie to protect our privacy (“No, I don’t live around here”); to avoid hurt feelings (“Friday is my study night”); to make others feel better (“Gee you’ve gotten skinny”); to avoid recriminations (“I only lost $10 at poker”); to prevent grief (“The doc says you’re getting better”); to maintain domestic tranquility (“She’s just a friend”); to avoid social stigma (“I just haven’t met the right woman”); for career advancement (“I’m sooo lucky to have a smart boss like you”); to avoid being lonely (“I love opera”); to eliminate a rival (“He has a boyfriend”); to achieve an objective (“But I love you so much”); to defeat an objective (“I’m allergic to latex”); to make an exit (“It’s not you, it’s me”); to delay the inevitable (“The check is in the mail”); to communicate displeasure (“There’s nothing wrong”); to get someone off your back (“I’ll call you about lunch”); to escape a nudnik (“My mother’s on the other line”); to namedrop (“We go way back”); to set up a surprise party (“I need help moving the piano”); to buy time (“I’m on my way”); to keep up appearances (“We’re not talking divorce”); to avoid taking out the trash (“My back hurts”); to duck an obligation (“I’ve got a headache”); to maintain a public image (“I go to church every Sunday”); to make a point (“Ich bin ein Berliner”); to save face (“I had too much to drink”); to humor (“Correct as usual, King Friday”); to avoid embarrassment (“That wasn’t me”); to curry favor (“I’ve read all your books”); to get a clerkship (“You’re the greatest living jurist”); to save a dollar (“I gave at the office”); or to maintain innocence (“There are eight tiny reindeer on the rooftop”)….

An important aspect of personal autonomy is the right to shape one’s public and private persona by choosing when to tell the truth about oneself, when to conceal, and when to deceive. Of course, lies are often disbelieved or discovered, and that, too, is part of the push and pull of social intercourse. But it’s critical to leave such interactions in private hands, so that we can make choices about who we are. How can you develop a reputation as a straight shooter if lying is not an option?

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