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Rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies © Robert Sommers 2017

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Lying Bastards

There's one way to find out if a man is honest - ask him. If he says, 'Yes,' you know he is a crook.
Groucho Marx

I am reading another excellent book by my favorite social scientist Dan Ariely. This one is titled The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty - how we lie to everyone, especially ourselves.

I am only halfway through so I don't really want to talk about it too much but will say that it is eye opening. He runs some novel experiments and well, you would be surprised how we humans cheat so. Some of us are just a tad better at masking our larceny.

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Anyway the part I found most intriguing so far is the chapter on why wearing fakes makes us cheat more. And in explaining the phenomenon I learned something new. It turns out that the ancient Romans came up with a set of regulations called sumptuary laws.

These laws made it illegal to dress above your class and told people who could wear what. Later in the renaissance, these laws decreed that only the nobility could wear certain fur, laces, would allow so much beading per square foot, etc.

Prostitutes had to wear a striped hood and apostates a patch decorated with a wood bundle so that they could be quickly burned at the stake if need be. It was manifestly illegal to dress above your station.

Now this wasn't just a greek, roman and english thing, in fact this was the way it was the world over, China, Islam, Japan, Italy and France.

Even in the young America.
In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, only people with a personal fortune of at least two hundred pounds could wear lace, silver or gold thread or buttons, cutwork, embroidery, hatbands, belts, ruffles, capes, and other articles.
The need to express our station to the world is called external signaling. We do it with our clothes, our cars and I suppose our language as well.

...no free woman should be allowed any more than one maid to follow her, unless she was drunk: nor was to stir out of the city by night, wear jewels of gold about her, or go in an embroidered robe, unless she was a professed and public prostitute; that, bravos excepted, no man was to wear a gold ring, nor be seen in one of those effeminate robes woven in the city of Miletus.
The Greek Zaleucus - 7th century b.c.e.

From the book, page 121:
What may seem to be an absurd degree of obsessive compulsion on the part of the upper crust was in reality an effort for people to ensure that people were what they signaled themselves to be; the system was designed to eliminate disorder and confusion. (It clearly had some signaling advantages although I am not suggesting that we revert back to it.) Although our current class system is not as rigid as it was in the past, the desire to signal success and individuality is as strong today as ever. The fashionably privileged now wear Armani instead of Ermine.
Interesting subject and book! The concept of external signaling and the innate need for humans to display rank is fascinating. I would bet that the need to draw a distinction from the next lower tier is stronger even than the desire to ascend the class pyramid. And there is also apparently an "anti" drive that prefers to project bottom status. You win.

I have noticed that the way the thing works, if a lower status person finds a way to externally signal at a higher rank, the goal lines move real quickly, always keeping the climber on the outside. Fascinating how it all works. And both honest and dishonest signaling appear to have deep roots in our evolutionary makeup.

I look forward to exploring the entire subject more thoroughly.

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