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The Robust Appetite for Deception

Date & Time:
16:30 - 18:00,
Tuesday 28 November, 2017


It is easy to see the motivation for being deceptive: it can be quite profitable to lie (if you can get away with it). Yet being deceived is harmful, and thus, we assume, undesirable. Yet people often not only tolerate deceptions, at times they demand them. Why?

In this talk I will look at the seemingly irrational demand for deception through the framework of signaling theory, an evolutionary model of communication based on the conflict between the signaler’s wish to make the most advantageous impression and the receiver’s desire to perceive the truth – a desire that, I will show, is more subtle and complicated than we often realize.

Sometimes, a deception is more pleasant than the truth: it flatters the recipient or confirms their existing beliefs. Here, other benefits outweigh the perceived value of demanding or even accepting truth.
Other times, an apparent deception is actually an honest signal of a quality other than its surface meaning. A common example is politeness – “white lies” that actually signal one’s respect for the other and intention to maintain social norms. Another very important example is the acceptance and dissemination of untruths that functions as a display of loyalty, supporting group cohesion and obedience. Here, it is not only acceptable for the statements to be untrue, it is essential.

Demonstrating willingness to believe fantastical claims signals that you will follow the leader unquestioningly. Though often harmful to the individual, this can be quite successful for the group as a whole. In the final part of this talk, I will discuss fake news and Trump’s repeated lies in the context of this analysis, including the use of fake news in online identity management.

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  • Name: Judith Donath
  • Affiliation: The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School
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    Judith Donath synthesizes knowledge from urban design, evolutionary biology and cognitive science to design innovative interfaces for on-line communities and virtual identities. She is the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online (MIT Press, 2014) and is known for her writing on identity, interface design, and social communication. Formerly the director of the MIT Media Lab’s Sociable Media Group, she is the creator of many pioneering online social applications; her work and that of the Sociable Media Group have been shown in museums and galleries worldwide. Currently, she is an advisor at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and is working on a book about technnology, trust and deception

    She received her doctoral and master’s degrees in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT and her bachelor’s degree in History from Yale University.