My Previous Life as a Deception Researcher
How I went from studying lying to studying living single.
Posted November 11, 2008
On Sunday, I got one e-mail after another asking me questions about the psychology of deception, so I figured something was up. Turns out that a story I wrote about deception a year or so ago for an online magazine was edited and re-posted on the homepage of MSNBC (with my affiliation listed incorrectly).
So maybe this is the time to tell you about my previous life as a deception researcher, and how I got from that person to the one I am now: a researcher and writer who identifies primarily as an observer, scholar, and practitioner of the single life.
When I first got to graduate school back in 1979, I had no idea what I wanted to study, but I was delighted with the person assigned to be my advisor. He was Robert Rosenthal, the Harvard researcher (now at UC Riverside) who was then most famous for his studies of the self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers were led to expect that certain students would be intellectual bloomers, those students actually did better than the students who were not expected to bloom. What made that interesting is that the two sets of students actually did not differ at all. The expectations were just experimental manipulations, but almost like magic, they resulted in different academic outcomes.
Part of the magic was nonverbal communication, and that's what Rosenthal was studying when I joined his lab. He was interested in the nonverbal communication of what the teachers really did believe. Perversely, I figured that if you were going to study nonverbal communication, you may as well study something more devious, such as the way nonverbal behaviors might give away lies.
I did that for a while, then ended up thinking that I had skipped over some of the most basic questions about lying. For example: How often do people lie? To whom do they tell their lies? What do they lie about? What reasons do they give for telling lies? Amazingly enough, at the time there was very little systematic research about those very fundamental questions.
For more than two decades, I pursued a whole compendium of questions about the hows and whys of telling lies. It was all pretty interesting, and I developed a certain expertise in the area.
For a long time, while I was piling up publications about deception, I was also keeping a secret file folder with the number "1" written on the label. It was the beginning of what I would later call my Singles Collection - clippings of essays, newspaper articles, magazine stories, cartoons, and notes about living single in contemporary American society. The "1" came from a quote in one of the very first stories I clipped: "One is a whole number."
One afternoon, at an outdoor social event on a beautiful day, I let my secret slip out of its folder. Approaching another person I hardly knew, but believed to be single, I asked her if she thought she had ever been viewed or treated differently just because she was single. The stories poured forth. Others overheard our conversation and joined us. For hours, the circle widened as more and more people chimed in. Over the course of that discussion, many of the themes that would eventually inform Singled Out and this blog got an airing.
I went home and immediately wrote notes for two hours. The next day, when I checked my e-mail, I had several follow-up notes from the discussion. "Oh, and another thing," they would say.
In the succeeding months and years, that scenario unfolded again and again. A one-on-one conversation would evolve into a bigger group discussion that would spill over into e-mail and other exchanges in the future. Discussions of singlism, and singles' resilience in the face of it, were hitting a nerve.
Eventually, my "1" folder became a drawer, then a file cabinet, then boxes of journal articles and clippings that could not be contained in just one room. My bookshelves got stuffed with the works of authors I knew nothing about back when I mostly studied deception.
I dug deeply into the professional journals about marriage and family, health and happiness. I was riveted. It was dawning on me that so many of the headlines I had seen in the press, and so many of the assumptions people make about others when they first learn they are single, were just plain wrong. Those images of uniformly lonely, miserable, self-centered, marriage-obsessed singles - myths, all.
I taught a course on Singles in Society. I started doing my own empirical research on singles and publishing journal articles. Eventually, I would pull it all together in Singled Out.
By 2000, the beginning of what was supposed to be my one-year sabbatical at UC Santa Barbara, I was becoming more and more passionate about, and more committed to, the study of singlehood. About five minutes after I stepped off the plane in Santa Barbara, I also became infatuated with the fantasy of never leaving this amazing place. So I didn't.
Here at UCSB I'm a visiting professor - a permanent visitor. Instead of the steady paycheck I had for decades, I try to pay the bills by teaching a course here or there, doing some consulting, some writing - whatever I can pick up, and still have time to devote to my thinking and writing and scholarship on singles.
I still do some research on deception. When I get contacted with a question that captures my imagination, I'll usually take some time to answer. But I think about whether I want to.
It's different when it comes to my singles work. I love hearing people's stories. I appreciate all the comments people contribute to this blog. I read and think about every one (even though I don't post all of my reactions). Maybe you can tell that some of my posts grow out of your comments.
If I never started that "1" folder, never ventured to ask other singles if they shared any of my experiences, I could have studied just deception for the rest of my career and been reasonably happy doing so (and more financially secure).
What a joy it has been to do otherwise.