Do We Want to Know What We Know?

Researchers know that we can be much better at detecting lies than we are – and that should not be so surprising given that polygraphs can do it. The information is stored in our bodies and brains, but the statistics that measure our conscious judgments show us to be miserable failures.

The New York Times quoted Leanne ten Brinke: “our own bodies know more than our conscious minds who is lying.” (See “The Search for Our Inner Lie Detectors.”)

So what is consciousness doing with the information to make it unavailable to us?

The answer has to be that we don’t want to know it explicitly. We don’t want the burden of making those judgments.

To be sure, our knowledge shows when we avoid looking others directly in the eye, when we shuffle our feet or change the subject. We are uneasy in the presence of lies and we sometimes act on it. But openly acknowledging them is another matter.

“Dr. ten Brinke speculated that we tell one another little lies all the time — for survival, reproductive strategy, and so on — and that part of getting along socially is being able to let those harmless lies escape notice.”

I would add that knowing someone is lying confers a burden of responsibility. What should we do with that knowledge? Whom do we tell?

So perhaps it is better not to know. Perhaps consciousness spares us choices we don’t want to make.