July 05, 2007

The well-placed lie...

...One of the most insidious forms of academic violence is the generation and transmission of rumours. We know from Ekman's (1985) research that the liars who are difficult to detect are those who can anticipate when they will have to lie, who will not be severely punished if caught, whose lies are sanctioned higher up in the system, who have successfully deceived the target before, who are practised in lying, and who have a good memory.

There is often an element of ambiguity to very skillful lies (Rosnow, 1991), making it difficult to receive disconfirming input. Disconfirmation may not even be sought, since we seem to have a tendency to want to believe the worst of people—a negativity bias (Amabile & Glazebrook, 1982) —and "to want to spit in god's eye" (J. Letvin, personal communication, 1976) — especially, perhaps, if they are above us in rank or status. Rumours and other lies are likely to be believed, and passed on to others, when the listeners are uncertain, are under stress, or are experiencing personal anxiety (Rosnow, 1991) — a situation that obtains for many faculty and students these days.

Aspects of the academic environment make it fertile soil for bumper crops of rumours and other lies. Unfortunately, students can also get caught up in the web of intrigue—as victims of coercion and of academic politics, but also as potential contributors to the violence, wittingly or unwittingly.

For a number of reasons, rumours are particularly difficult to dispel:

  • For instance, the target of the rumour may not even be aware of the circulation of lies about them; they may only have noticed that people are treating them differently.

  • If the target becomes aware of the lies and tries to correct the misperceptions or misinformation, they are less likely to be believed (a) because they may be perceived as being "defensive" (à la perceptions of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth: "methinks the Lady doth protest too much") and (b) because primacy is more powerful in communication effectiveness than is recency (discussed in Markus & Zajonc, 1985).

  • Even otherwise very intelligent people tend to believe that "where there's smoke, there's fire"; the possibility that both the smoke and the fire may have been caused by an arsonist—a psychological arsonist—seems rarely to spring to mind.
Taken together, these factors may render impossible any due process or achievement of social justice for the victim.

The generation and transmission of rumours is difficult to curb: like the unethical passing on of confidential information "confidentially", the transmission makes both the bearer of the tale and the recipient of the misinformation "important". Yet, left unchecked—and thereby condoned—rumours can lead to very destructive consequences for the target of this violence, the recent suicide of a McGill psychologist being a case in point (Fox, 1994). When left unchecked, the character assassination can create a climate in which two additional circumstances may obtain:
  • The victim can achieve pariah status; vulnerable others, afraid of being "tarred with the same brush", may avoid being linked to or associated with the victim, thereby isolating the victim and leaving them bereft of support.

  • Unscrupulous others, bent on revenge, can "justify" to themselves further violence, thereby escalating the irreversible damage.
The generation and transmission of rumours is unethical (Stark[-Adamec] & Pettifor, 1995); failure to curb rumour-mongering is also unethical; even listening to rumours condones the violence and could therefore be considered unethical. The generation, transmission, and failure to curb rumours is so prevalent in academic work environments that one may feel pressed to choose between two unattractive explanations: that academics do not realize the gravity of the situation and the unethical nature of these acts; or that they do realize that such behaviour is wrong and, like true sociopaths, persist in wrongdoing anyway...

From: Psychological violence in academia, University of Regina


Anonymous said...

I was continuously amazed by one professor who told the most outrageous lies, even when there was no obvious benefit to himself. It was perhaps an expression of power to say something false, which everyone present would recognise as false, and not be challenged.

Anonymous said...

I was amazed to have a very senior manager who made lies part and parcel of his working life - and like you - nobody had the guts to challenge him. And so, he continued with his lies and when this became obvious to everyone, he had a thick enough skin not to worry about his credibility! However, he did become vindictive to anyone that challenged him. We all had to live his lies and pretend they were the truth... It would seem that the higher one is in the structure, the more lies they can say and get away with it - and the more likely others will not challenge them and so they can carry on with their lies...