Honesty's the best policy if you follow it honestly

As the ad says, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Thus two American academics gave college freshpersons a few minutes to meet each other on the first day of class, and found nine weeks later that people who had initially liked or disliked each other mostly still did. I took one look at that story in the Citizen and said "Yeah, it figures.'' It still does. It certainly fits with other studies, as it does with the cliche that most job interviews are essentially over in the first 30 seconds. And that professor who seemed dull in the first lecture had you comatose by Christmas, right?

Mind you, there are two very different possible explanations. Either we mortals are shallow fools who make hasty judgments, then refuse to revise them, or else the human intellect is geared primarily toward social interaction, because we don't have to be good at calculus if we can sense whether the engineer before us is honest and intelligent or a sneaky blowhard. I'm going with the latter.

So take my cup of coffee, please. I've long known not to accept when they offer it in a job interview. But I only recently found out why. "Any fool can drink coffee,'' explained a lawyer who conducts such interviews, "but it takes a real fool to spill it.'' Of course, not every fool does spill it. But running the risk reveals your folly. If you need caffeine to function well, or at all, you have my sympathy. But if you didn't have a cup before the interview you lack foresight or organization, and if you can't resist another during it you lack self-control. And it shows.

Fine. It's obvious why we would want to be able to judge people quickly and accurately. What's not so clear is why we can. Why hasn't an evolutionary or social arms race made us such good liars as to produce a stalemate? Lying can work; just ask Bill Clinton. But also, I suggest, ask economist Robert Frank.

His Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions starts with the tale of a dog piddling on a stoned kid at a political rally. It is, you'll agree, more colourful than dull chatter about "commitment problems.'' But Mr. Frank goes on to point out that chasing a dog if it pees on you takes time and effort, if you catch it you might get bitten, and even if you whale the tar out of it you won't get the urine off you. It's clearly irrational. Except for one vital consideration. If the dog knows you'd chase and whack it, it won't pee on you. If. The kid's big mistake was being obviously too wasted to move.

If you're dealing with the same person or dog repeatedly, he can learn from experience that you'll eventually seize a chance to stuff his face into the village fire if he steals your corn, messes with your wife or pees on your leg.

It's a lot harder with strangers, which makes xenophobia common and trips to the market risky. An irrational willingness to avenge injury is actually rational if it deters injury. But to do so it must be evident beforehand. Especially if your position is weak. My Scots ancestors fended off the English not by feuding tenaciously, but by being notorious for it. Rudeness is a weapon of the weak. (The drawback is, it signals weakness. But hey, economists expect tradeoffs). So humans are good at giving strangers a look that says wrong me and I'll chase you round perdition's flames before I give you up.

The same thing, oddly, is true of honesty. It too is a big advantage, if you're an open book. Dogs that wag their tails only when happy can be trusted by other dogs. Whereas, if people even suspect you can lie without blushing, your eggs will go unsold in the market and you'll freeze in the dark while the tribe shares food and jokes round the fire. If they don't suspect, it can be even worse.

Lying may appeal to the short-sighted and the fleet of foot. And the occasional bandit makes out like a bandit. But it is at least as dangerous to be overestimated as underestimated. You really don't want to be a major disappointment to your spouse, your boss or the guy next to you in the foxhole. Especially if they have the typical human predisposition to think revenge is a dish best served cold. Far better to have your limitations as well as your qualities on open display.

We are told not to judge a book by its cover but by golly the first sentence tells you a lot. For instance, "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.'' (Nineteen Eighty-four.) Whereas, if the author lacked the talent or willingness to start well, it could improve later but what are the odds? So wear a nice shirt to a job interview and don't spill coffee on it.

Otherwise, they'll realize you're a bum right away. And be right.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson