“Did you call him yet?” my boss asked. We were under pressure to finish a big editorial project, and the phone call was key to crucial details. I replied reflexively, without thinking: “I haven't reached him yet.” My boss's eyes flashed. “Wait a minute,” he said impatiently. “You tried him and you didn't get through, or you haven't called yet at all?” Whoops. I admitted that, in fact, I hadn't called.
Since then, I have often wondered what made me respond so evasively. One of the benefits of working on Scientific American Mind is how often it provides not only a useful source of such constructive self-inspection but also the answers about what's going on in my head. As a species, we humans lie at least several times a day, for reasons large and small, even though most of us condemn the habit. Our gift for dissembling has enabled societies to survive and thrive. Find out why in “Natural-Born Liars,” by David Livingstone Smith, on page 16.
Common wisdom would suggest that people fib when doing so helps them improve their personal situation in some way. But another article in this issue puts the lie to that notion. Under conditions common in routine crime investigations, suspects will say they're guilty of committing a crime when they're actually innocent. Perhaps 20 percent of all DNA exonerations have had false confessions in evidence. False confessions also affect how law-enforcement officers, attorneys, judges and juries treat defendants. Turn to page 24 for “True Crimes, False Confessions,” by Saul M. Kassin and Gisli H. Gudjonsson.
Maybe we shouldn't be so hard on ourselves. After all, it's difficult to get an accurate picture of the world we inhabit, as you'll see in “Illusions,” by Vila-yanur S. Ramachandran and Diane Rogers-Ramachandran, on page 96. If we focus on trying to count balls passed rapidly among basketball players, for instance, we can completely miss a person in a gorilla suit strutting across the floor. Sound far-fetched? Hey, are you going to believe us—or your lying eyes?