On Deception

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Dear Friends, Many of you have heard the story: Two old Quaker farmers are working together, repairing a fence. One farmer pauses, looks up, and comments that among a flock of white sheep, he sees a black one. The other farmer looks up at the flock and replies, “Well yes, it is black on this side.”

We never see anything completely or purely. Studies in cognitive science and moral psychology tell us that the nature of our neurology places rose-colored contact lenses on our eyes and the nurture of our society adds rose-colored glasses.

We are hardwired to be optimists. Eighty percent of people worldwide believe they are better than average in terms of driving ability, likeability, honesty, and even modesty. This “optimism bias” is a neurological tendency to overestimate our chances of having good experiences and to underestimate our chances of bad ones. It’s not that we don’t comprehend the laws of probability; we just don’t think the numbers apply to us (Tali Sharot, 2011).

Further, we are socialized into systems of morality. These systems allow humans to join together in large cooperative groups that transcend bonds of kinship – like tribes and nations – unlike other animals. The purpose of moral reasoning is to demonstrate that the behavior of our group is right, not to determine objective truth (Jonathan Haidt, 2012).

Our biases are tools that we creatures rely on, that allow us to construct meaning out of the flood of sensation that is our daily life. But our biases also make us easy to dupe and to swindle. As Friends of Truth, as a people reluctant to call both sides of a sheep black without seeing both sides first, we are a people who guard against unrealistic “notions” that could deceive us, and we are a people called to guard each other from deceptive practices like gambling. “We believe that all forms of betting and gambling and all merely speculative means of obtaining money are contrary to the spirit of Christ. Through addiction to such practices, the mind becomes set upon quick ways of getting riches, and the sense of the true values of things is often lost . . . This state of mind is destructive of the larger life of the soul . . . (London Yearly Meeting, 1911).

Beyond the damage it does to the soul, gambling literally destroys people’s lives. Casinos are explicitly designed to exploit our bias towards unrealistic optimism. And beyond the damage it does to individuals, gambling destroys whole sectors of society. Wall Street is continually devising new financial instruments to shift the (gambling) risks of investments away from industry insiders and onto the shoulders of the general public. Five million families have lost their homes to foreclosures since the mortgage crisis began in 2006, and three million more remain on the verge of foreclosure.

These millions of people have lost their homes and life savings not because they were lazy, but because they followed their optimism bias and remained loyal to Team Free Market. As Michael Lewis put it, “How do you make poor people feel wealthy when wages are stagnant? You give them cheap loans.” Clever financial analysts devised ways of converting the poverty of real people into assets that insiders could trade for a profit on Wall Street. “The Mexican harvested strawberries; Wall Street harvested his FICO score.” (Michel Lewis, 2010.)

As Friends, we are called to examine the systems we live in, to identify sources of abuse, and to press for change. We cannot take the splinter out of our neighbor’s eye, however, unless we take the plank out of our own. To help us take off our rose-colored lenses, to help us look at life in a clear light, to help us get a little distance from our own optimism bias and from our righteous social mind, Friends can turn to the gift of waiting worship: “Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart; and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience . . . the inheritance of life . . .” (Isaac Penington, 1661).