When Lies Tell More Than Truth

A few weeks ago, the Assistant Village Idiot was at my house and noted, with pleasure, that one of his favorite books (Albion’s Seed) was on my bookshelf. Sheepishly, I had to confess that the copy on my shelf was actually one he had lent me “about a year ago”.

He apparently had not remembered this, but remarked that he had bought a new copy as he was unclear what had happened to the previous one. This is a very AVI problem to have, but he also remarked that he was pretty sure the book had been lent closer to two years ago.

Being properly chagrined at this conversation, I promptly did two things:

  1. Began reading the book immediately, which I hadn’t quite gotten to yet
  2. Looked up the email exchange we had about the book, to figure out when exactly he had lent it to me. October 2017 – 16 months, for those keeping track at home.

In other words, my one year was generous, but I’m not quite so bad as two years. Also, if you lend me a book, you may want to put a time limit on it.

Anyway, I was thinking of this today because I got to an interesting part in the book that had to do with the cultural insights that come from noting how people tweak the truth.

For those of you who have never read Albion’s Seed, the basic premise is that different parts of the US were settled by people from different parts of England, and that led to cultural differences that persist until the current day. I’m still in the part about New England, but they note that the Puritans who settled here highly valued those who lived to older ages. This case is proved in part by the fact that the census data showed that after a certain age, more people claimed to be older than they actually were. Instead of having a relatively even spread between ages like 69, 70 and 71, they found that more people said they were 70, and fewer said they were 69:

This is the reverse of what we see today, where people tend to say they are a little younger than they are. This trend actually did not remain constant with the Puritans, rather the age bias only came in to play in the late 50s:

This struck me as fascinating, because we so often think of lying on a survey as a bad thing. However, when you have access to comparison data, people lying on surveys can actually be helpful. Since everyone tends to exaggerate in a direction that makes them look better, figuring out what direction people lie in can actually give you good insight in to what a culture values.

Things to consider.

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