The fabulous Fake-o-meter™
You’re sitting in your sofa, watching television. It happens to be public election-time, and some news regarding a well-known politician comes on, with him smiling broadly at the camera. You shudder at his fake smile and change channels. You end up at a pageant finale, with numerous women smiling as if their lives depended on it. You sigh and switch off the telly, muttering for yourself: “Why are fake smiles so annoying?”
Fake smiles really are annoying, and not only when seen on television. We all probably know at least one colleague, class mate or relative whose smile is definitely on the fake side. And there’s no doubt in our minds: that smile really is fake.
So the question is: how can we be so sure? After all, it’s not like we’re inside their brains, knowing all their intentions or experiencing their emotions. In short, how do we read each other’s minds?
The mind-reading monkey
As regular readers of this blog most probably know, I’m rather fond of the subject human evolution. I revel in reading about new paleontological finds, the latest in human gene research and theories on our different human traits. And if no knowledge is available, I don’t mind speculating on what could be true.
And one of the challenges in the studies on how we became human is to determine what our unique traits are. What makes us human? How are we so different from other animals? Many different traits have been suggested to be uniquely human, only to later be discovered in other animals. Manufacturing and use of tools, a learned (as opposed to inherited) culture, empathy, language, advanced problem solving. All of those have been discovered in numerous other animals, making us humans less unique and more of.. well.. more of the same. So are we just naked bipedal apes, then? If so, how are we so successful? And, coming back to the original question: why are we so different from other animals, if all we can do is also done by others?
Well, that’s a bit tricky. Indeed, most of what we do, other animals can do as well. But, and this is the nub, rarely as well as we do them. And in addition, we have an ace up our metaphorical sleeve: the theory of mind. Although not unique (we should really start to get over ourselves on that point), no other animal has perfected the theory of mind as us humans. We have an uncanny ability to read other peoples’ minds on a regular basis, and it all starts with that fake smile.
Let’s go back a few million years and visit Africa. The first humans are rapidly spreading and increasing in numbers, aggregating in bigger and bigger groups. In order to make it within the group, we had to develop our intelligence and become more political, with a ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’-scheme quickly becoming popular. But (and this is a BIG BUT), a few of our early ancestors invented something new – the lie.
With this brand-new and exciting concept, a member of the group could pretend to want to do someone else a favour in order to receive something in return. This dishonest behaviour would quickly have spread throughout the human population as it promised something for nothing. It was the original ‘get rich quick’-scheme.
The honest hard-working group members, however, were not so amused. They regularly found themselves waiting in vain for the promised return favours/tools/food items/sex. Something had to be done about this lying thing, and fast.
Said and done. We rapidly developed that uncanny ability to see through what was being communicated by the other person and second-guess what they actually were thinking. We evolved into mind-reading political animals, constantly expecting trickery and foul play*.
The fabulous Fake-o-meter™ − copyright of Homo sapiens
And so it was that humans finally acquired something unique – the ability to detect when someone is lying. It’s not foolproof and we often make mistakes, but it’s efficient enough to make the people who tell us lies a little nervous (which, incidentally, makes it easier to detect their lies).
We still have dishonest people around, and some of us are better than others at detecting when being tricked, but at least a kind of balance has been restored. They liars don’t have all the advantage anymore; their fake smiles betray them.
And now for something completely different..
Today is a special day. You might or might not be aware of it, but it is in fact Amy’s blogoversary! Yes, that’s right: Lucy’s football is one year old today! I assume you all know who Amy is, since she is proper famous. But if you don’t, Amy writes very funny, very intelligent and not seldom thought-provoking posts on her blog Lucy’s Football EVERY DAY. You read it; she has posted more than 365 posts during the year since she started blogging. And no short, tweet-like posts, either. No, proper posts. With proper thoughts and everything. Even on days when she might feel like shit. By contrast, I consider it a success if I manage to produce one post a week, and I have therefore only managed to accomplish 50 odd posts during my years of blogging.
So listen fellas, if you’re not already following her blog, do yourself a BIG FAVOUR and go follow it now. There are links to her blog everywhere (including in my blog roll to the right). She constantly crack me up (not an euphemism!) and I’m so happy and proud to be allowed to call her my friend.
Happy blogoversary Amy!
* We evolved the ability to LEARN how to read minds and expect trickery and foul play. It’s a cultural thing, learned from our parents and others around us, and not something that is inherited, like the ability to walk upright or produce complex sound.