November 2011


Your mother may have told you: Don’t believe everything you hear. As you know, that could easily be expanded to: Don’t believe everything you read.

Especially if it’s in an email or text message, a new study shows.

The research, conducted by Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology, and graduate student Mattityahu Zimbler, at the University of Massachusetts Amhurst, was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Appied Social Psychology under the absolutely delightful title: Liar, Liar, Hard Drive on Fire: How Media Context Affects Lying Behavior.

They looked at communications between 110 pairs of same sex college students who “talked” for 15 minutes face-to-face, via text message and via email. The exchanges were later analyzed for inaccuracies.

Fewest inaccuracies (or lies, if you will) were tossed around during face-to-face time. Honesty took a hit in text messaging and instant messaging but email apparently won the Pinocchio Award for deliberate misinformation.

The more disconnected people are, the more inclined they are to stretch the truth, the researchers said.

“The Internet allows people to feel more free, psychologically speaking, to use deception, at least when meeting new people,” they said.

Professor, where do you feel Facebook fits into the picture?

Feldman, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amhurst, surely has an opinion. He is known as an expert on lying and is the author of the 2009 book, The Liar in Your Life.

In fact, his website is all about lying and explains that Feldman has studied lying for the past 25 years. That’s a lot of deception under the bridge.

I recommend the Q & A section in which Feldman discusses: “Why do people lie so much?” and “What’s the biggest misconception about lying?”

He replies: “There are actually two. One is that there are certain cues that always betray a liar, and that we can spot them and use them to identify liars. As I discuss in the book, no single or even combination of verbal or nonverbal behaviors invariably indicate when a person is lying. And many of the cues we think are associated with lying are unrelated to deception. So it turns out we’re not very good at telling when others are being untruthful.

“The other misconception is that we are relentless truth-seekers. It turns out that in many cases we accept and even embrace the lies of others. In some cases, it is simply expedient to accept others’ lies. And when lies are consistent with the way we wish to view ourselves (as smart, competent, successful people), we’re often motivated to believe the lies to which we are exposed.”

Like if someone says to me: “Hey! Nice column this week!” That’s an honest, gut-level reaction. No seriously, thanks.

I think.

The real $64,000 Jack Nicholson question is, can you handle the truth? If so, perhaps the best approach, at least with email and texts, is to assume everything is a lie and then look for the tiny grains of truth within it.

Sift and winnow, winnow and sift. And before you know it, you’ll have the unvarnished truth before you, as Richard Nixon used to say.

If you have the curiosity and courage to look.

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The Supreme Court is supposed to be above politics but it is not. The past decade is filled with examples of 5-4 decisions, starting with the stopping of the Florida recount in 2000, in which Republican-appointed justices and Democratic-appointed justices took opposing sides.

So looking at the landmark health care case that’s coming up in March, which will decide the fate of the Obama Administration’s reform law, one would tend to give the advantage to opponents.

The court seems poised to strike down the individual mandate, after which the rest of the law would crumble.

Under that scenario, John Roberts, Jr. (Chief Justice), Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr. would provide the majority vote to scrap the mandate; while Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg would provide minority support.

This is the same lineup that tossed out the McCain-Feingold law last year, ruling that the government can’t ban political spending by corporations during elections. A good example of a 5-4 decision right along party lines.

But the judicial debate over the health care law will be more complicated. There are really three issues to be considered. One is whether the federal government has the power to require all of its citizens to purchase a health insurance policy. Another is whether the government can mandate Medicaid increases on the state level — something that would need to happen in order for low income residents to be covered under a Medicaid plan.

And finally the court must decide whether if one or both of these provisions is unconstitutional, the rest of the provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act would still stand.

But there’s one additional twist. Since the reform law imposes an income tax penalty on people who don’t buy a health insurance policy — and that penalty won’t go into effect until 2015 — court members could rule that the mandate provision can’t be considered for another three years.

That’s based on an 1867 law that prevents courts from striking down tax laws before they go into effect.

Arguments will be held in March, with a decision due by June, just when the presidential election really begins heating up.

The latter is the most likely outcome, in my view. The Supreme Court often kicks the can down the road, ruling on very narrow points that have only a technical effect on current law. Not always, granted.

My bet is that the court upholds the Medicaid provision requiring states to beef up their budgets. If that’s unconstitutional, why wouldn’t the entire Medicaid program be unconstitutional?

But they’ll put the individual mandate question on hold until a suit is brought by a taxpayer or group of taxpayers arguing that they can’t be penalized for failure to purchase a commercial product.

That solution would take the court out of politics during what promises to be a very bitter and hard-fought election. Health care will remain a front-burner issue.

Whatever happens, look for one- or two-vote margins. The court is just as partisan and split as the rest of the country.

For a more indepth look of the upcoming court decision, see this analysis published by Kaiser Health News.

Photo via Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tabor-roeder/5554047867/

I was determined to see a movie over the weekend and chose the Clint Eastwood effort to encapsulate FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s strange life of power and self-aggrandizement into 137 minutes of popcorn-popping entertainment.

To be not interested in Hoover is to be not interested in the history of the 20th century. He became director of the agency in 1935 and survived six presidents, building files on some of them and their wives (including JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt).

But J. Edgar hasn’t exactly taken the box office by storm. It came in fifth over the weekend behind Immortals, Jack and Jill, Puss in Boots and Tower Heist.

(Immoratals: “A mortal chosen by Zeus named Theseus must lead the fight against the ruthless King Hyperion and his evil army with the fate of mankind and the Gods at stake.” Which, come to think of it, actually sounds a little like the life Hoover thought he was living.)

I’m an admirer of Clint Eastwood films in general, especially the 1992 western, Unforgiven. But several things bothered me about J. Edgar.

First was its focus on the FBI director’s personal relationship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson. It seemed Eastwood was trying to make Hoover a victim of his own moral code, handed down by his controlling mother, the center of his life until her death.

He was incapable of declaring his love for Tolson, according to the movie’s narrative, and chose to live the fiction that he was always looking for the right Mrs. Hoover. Certainly a part of the story, but the thread seemed to overwhelm the movie at times. Where was the film editor when you needed him?

I was also distracted by the bit about the Kennedy assassination. Hoover gets a call saying the president has been shot, like he was the first to know. He calls Robert Kennedy and says, “The president has been shot,” then hangs up. Like the JFK shooting wasn’t on the wires or on TV within minutes?

Another chance to show Hoover’s vindictive nature, but at the expense of history.

The script was written by Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the the Sean Penn movie, Milk. It does deal with Hoover’s obsession with Martin Luther King Jr. But what surprised me is that J. Edgar tiptoes around the damage the FBI caused King and the Black rights’ movement in the 1960s.

Hoover was convinced King was a communist and successfully sought to wiretap his conversations. He reportedly collected information on King’s sex life, but had no confirmation that the civil rights movement had been subjected to communist infiltration.

In fact, the FBI admitted in 1976, four years after Hoover’s death, that they had found no evidence that King, or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had any communist ties whatsoever.

Hoover said King was “the most notorious liar in the country,” an interesting choice of words for someone who might have been the nation’s most prominent hypocrite.

Eastwood might say he was trying to portray the life of one of the most interesting and conflicted public figures of the last century, warts and all.

But like Leonardo Dicaprio, it seemed to me he a applied a little too much makeup to the story.

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Folks, there’s a blue light special on medical checkups in aisle six. Oh right, the blue light specials were an old K-mart thing.

It’s K-mart’s longtime nemesis, Walmart, that may be about to charge forcefully into the primary health care biz. According to “confidential documents” cited by Kaiser Health News and National Public Radio, the chain aims to become the “nation’s biggest primary care provider.”

Although Walmart later denied the report, the news organizations said the company intends to “capitalize on growing demand for primary care in 2014,” when the health care reform law goes into full force.

The company wants to partner with health care providers to streamline care and lower costs, KHN said. If the report is true, it will begin building its network as early as next January.

Photo: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, right, and Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Wikimedia Commons)

Do you make your living sitting at a desk all day? You say yeah, sure, but I work out every morning. Thirty minutes, minimum.

Well OK, but a new study shows that you should be working on your computer keyboard the same way Jerry Lee Lewis used to play piano.

Sitting down for extended periods, even if you consider yourself a gym rat, contributes to several kinds of cancer, including colon cancer. The study was presented last week at the annual conference of the American Institute for Cancer Research.

One of the speakers was Charles Matthews, Physical Activity Epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics in Bethesda, Md.

At a session on Sedentary Behavior and Physical Activity, he noted that if you workout for 30 minutes a day, sit at a desk for eight to ten hours, and then plop yourself in front of the TV for another three or four hours after dinner, your overall activity level is still dismally low.

In fact, he said adults often spend up to 70 percent of their time sitting down.

So, what’s a worker bee to do when there are computer keyboards to be tapped?

Matthews set up his own workspace so he could type while standing up, or while walking on a treadmill.

“I took out my modular furniture, and replaced it with a counter-height desk so I can either sit or stand and do my work,” Matthews said. He rigged up a way to put a shelf on his treadmill grab-bars upon which he has set his keyboard and mouse.

“I can stand, walk, and type while looking straight ahead at the monitor. I usually walk at a very slow speed so it’s easy to type. This isn’t intended to replace regular exercise – I still ride my bike to work on most days. But rearranging my office has given me the opportunity stand up and keep moving rather than just sitting for hours.”

When you’re at home watching TV, get up during commercials and walk around the house, Matthews and his colleagues advise.

This is particularly true when a pharmaceutical commercial comes on. Who knows, you might improve your health and save your sanity at the same time.

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There’s nothing funny about being in the hospital.

Or is there?

Medical clowning has been around for decades. Recall the Robin Williams Patch Adams movie from 1988, based on the work and controversial methods of Hunter Adams, M.D., founder of the Gesundheit! Institute.

These days, medical clowning is apparently serious business. So much so that the world’s first International Conference on Medicine and Medical Clowning was recently held at the Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha Guest House near Jerusalem.

About 200 professional clowns attended along with 15 physicians from 25 countries. Israel itself has 90 medical clowns in 22 hospitals, and the University of Haifa is going to start offering a master’s degree in “clowning therapy,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

Laughter is supposed to be the world’s best medicine, but not everybody will be able to get the joke. A tip of the hat to those who do.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons