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Jonah Lehrer and the Psychology of Making Stuff Up

Jonah Lehrer's having a rough summer. A month ago, when the author and journalist was busted, bizarrely, for self-plagiarizing — that is, reusing passages of his own work in newly published articles at the _New Yorker's_ website - he said "it was a...
July 31, 2012, 4:50pm

Jonah Lehrer’s having a rough summer. A month ago, when the author and journalist was busted, bizarrely, for self-plagiarizing — that is, reusing passages of his own work in newly published articles at the New Yorker’s website – he said “it was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” Editor David Remnick defended his new hire at the time, explaining that this minor journalistic breach wasn’t on the same level as, say, “making things up or appropriating other people's work.”


On Monday, Tablet magazine published a bombshell on how Lehrer fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works. We’re not talking one or two quotes, either. Lehrer fabricated, modified or took out of context at least seven quotes in the book’s first chapter alone. While Lehrer managed to escape his earlier scandal without any major consequences from his employer, The New Yorker, this was simply too much for Remnick. Lehrer resigned his position as staff writer at the magazine just a few hours after the Tablet story broke and his publisher Houghton-Mifflin halted all sales of the book. As of right now, the book can’t even be found on Amazon.

Everyone wants to know: What on Earth was he thinking? The 31-year-old rising star had a lot going for him, and what we know about the psychology of lying suggests that this is precisely what did him in. As a former Rhodes scholar with a degree in neuroscience from Columbia with a delightfully square jaw, Lehrer was a prolific and uniquely well received writer, known for his creative take on neuroscience and nimble ability to explain complex ideas in simple language. Imagine, a best-seller, demonstrated that. But its very topic also hints at his problem. Talent and creativity come with a dark side. Multiple psychological studies show that creative people tend to lie and cheat more often. In particular, one study by Dan Ariely of Duke University and Francesca Gino of Harvard explained how creativity and dishonesty are linked, in part, because the creative types tend to convince themselves of their lies. “It’s all about telling stories,” Ariely explains, “so creative people are likely to be able to tell themselves better stories, which would allow them to cheat more on the one hand, but not feel worse about it on the other.”


Lehrer, it seems, held on to his lie pretty tightly. When Tablet‘s Michael C. Moynihan (who was until recently editor of Motherboard sister Vice), initially approached him about the suspicious Dylan quotes, Lehrer spent three weeks fabricating excuses as to why the quotes couldn’t be found anywhere. He lied through his teeth, saying he found the quotes in obscure, previously unpublished interviews with Dylan, and even made up other topics that were discussed in the nonexistent interviews. Only after three weeks of interrogation did Lehrer come clean. “I couldn't find the original sources,” he ultimately said. “I panicked. And I'm deeply sorry for lying.”

There’s also evidence to suggest that Lehrer was okay with bending the truth to fit his needs, a believer in an idea he describes in the book – that creativity knows no bounds. When, this past spring, he talked to Stephen Colbert about imagination, Lehrer hinted at the idea that a little bit of deception was inevitable. “Bob Dylan has this great line when someone asked him where his songs come from, he said, ‘They begin with acts of love. You fall in love with something and then you steal it,’” Lehrer told Colbert. He added, “It’s important to create a culture where you can borrow from others.” We already knew that Lehrer was open to recycling his own work for new applications, and now he’s shown us that making his own ideas someone else’s doesn’t bother him either. The Mike Daisey creative defense – “it’s not journalism, it’s theater” – definitely isn’t going to cut it here.


Game theory suggests that lying is a better strategy in games of imperfect information; disgraced New York Times reporter Jason Blair – who now works as a life coach at a psychiatric clinic – points to addictive behavior that causes liars to keep lying as a way to temporarily dull the “pain” of the truth. He described his thought process to Salon, one that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever told a big lie: “So just this one time again. Every time, just this one time. I'll catch up eventually.” The investigations into the rest of Lehrer’s work are just beginning.

Like much of what we do, the detailed neuro mechanics of deception are still little understood, but research suggests that lying is a deeply buried capacity. In particular, studies of theory of mind involving monkeys — one dominant, one submissive — show that the submissive monkey will get a hidden cache of food if given privileged information about its whereabouts (e..g., it saw the food behind a curtain or behind a barrier). But if the submissive monkey knows that the dominant monkey saw it, too, it will defer to it. Says Greg Wayne, a neuroscience doctoral candidate at Columbia, and contributor to this blog, “Even before language begins, animals know what others know, and know how to exploit that to their advantage in social hierarchies.”

All things considered, Lehrer’s deceit and his confidence go hand in hand. And his good looks didn’t help. Allison Kornet explained in Psychology Today that “some personality and physical traits — notably self-confidence and physical attractiveness — have been linked to an individual’s skill at lying when under pressure.” Being smart also helps. Scientists say that an increased amount of white matter, the stuff that handles cognitive processes, in one’s brain equips them to be better liars.

Therein lies the ultimate irony. Lehrer didn’t lie because he was dumb. Like the many young, smart and ambitious journalist fabulists that have proceeded him, Lehrer was smart enough to come up with the fabrications and confident enough to think he could pull it off. He just didn’t count on other people being smart enough to catch him. Which wasn’t, ultimately, a very smart thing.


Image via Flickr