Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

01.16.13

Fake Girlfriends and Other Dangerous Fabrications

What are they thinking?

I am fascinated by liars.  

I don't mean ordinary, boring liars, like employees who call in sick because they want to go to the beach, or insurance salesmen who tell you that it is a good idea to buy whole life insurance.  I mean people who tell high-test, dry-aged, technicolor extravaganza sort of lies.  The kind of lies that are very, very hard to tell without eventually getting caught.  Like making up a girlfriend who died of leukemia right before a big game.

Journalist Stephen Glass fabricating companies whose threads were spun out of his fertile imagination.  People who pretend to attend law school or medical school, fooling their families for years.  Scientists who fake Nobel-caliber research.  

The morality of this is not very interesting: what they're doing is terrible.  But the psychology is fascinating.  What all these lies have in common is that eventually, there is a 100% chance that you will get caught, and that your lies will destroy you.  How do people decide to tell them?

I'm not talking about folks like Mike Daisey, who might conceivably have imagined--wrongly--that China was so very far away that no one would be able to check up on his fabrications.  Or even Jonah Lehrer, whose fabrications were trivial details that he might have imagined were too small to attract notice.  (As they were, until he made the mistake of fabricating a Bob Dylan quote.  In his not-exactly-defense, I wouldn't have known how rabid Dylan fans, either.)  I mean people who were telling lies that could not possibly go on forever without being exposed.

Like scientists who fabricate amazing research results, something that is nearly impossible to get away with over the long term, since other labs are going to repeatedly discover that your results do not replicate. 

Or journalists who make up pulitzer-bait.

Or people who tell their friends and family that they're going to professional school, when they aren't--yes, this really does happen, and don't they think that people will eventually notice they're not a doctor?  

This seems to be a poorly-studied phenomenon, in part because these sorts of spectacular, sure-to-be-detected lies aren't all that common, and in part because the liars are not very reliable sources of information, even about themselves.  I've read some of the interviews and first-person accounts from people who did this sort of thing, and they are wildly, profoundly unsatisfying.  They don't ever explain what I'd like to know, which is "How did you ever see this working out?"  

Of course, they do get away with it for longer than you would think--dozens of news outlet broadcast details (and a photograph!) of Te'o's apparently non-existant dead girlfriend. Perhaps that encourages them to escalate: if Sports Illustrated didn't check, why would anyone else?  But that's not satisfying either.  Doesn't it ever occur to them that every additional story makes it more likely that they will get caught?  

A fabricated love interest who eventually dies of some heartrending fatal disease is the kind of thing that many of us heard from at least one histrionic friend in college.  It is the kind of thing that you can perhaps get away with, if you are not famous.  But the probability approached 1 that this would be exposed. Whether Te'o is the hoaxer behind the fake girlfriend, or was himself hoaxed, the question remains: why on earth . . . ?  

Perhaps it's just that these people do not adjust quickly enough to playing in the big leagues; they don't understand quickly enough that the kind of lies people tell in bars cannot safely be broadcast to thousands or millions of people, and the kind of shortcuts that an unscrupulous or desperate person might safely take on a boring, low-circulation article are career suicide on a high-profile publication.  By the time the danger becomes clear, it is too late.  

Or perhaps we'll never understand it. Perhaps the fabricators do not even understand it themselves.