Before the era of video chat, I once was asked by a friend if I could tag along for her blind date. She had recently met a guy online, and needed a backup plan if things went south. At the appointed hour, her date arrived, and was three inches shorter, twenty pounds heavier, and had one more comb-over than his profile had led her to believe.
Not surprisingly, my friend was furious beyond words.
This is apparently pretty common. OKCupid’s analysis of 1.5 million active users, shows that people often lie about pretty much everything on their dating profiles, and it’s probably fair to say that we all have, at some point in time, tried to appear vastly more impressive then we actually were.
Why are we, as humans, so afraid of rejection that we need to constantly lie to try and impress others?
In the distant past, when humans were hunted by large predators, ejection from the tribe was an automatic death sentence. Because of this, we have evolved a deep and instinctive fear of group rejection. This fear causes us to worry more about our reputations than almost anything else.
Today, the average person living in London or San Francisco faces a notably lower chance of being mauled to death by a lion, but we still worry about our perceived reputation so much that we blow ourselves up like pufferfish in a futile attempt to impress others. We fear, in a deep and visceral way, that other people will think less of who we really are.
We lie because we are terrified of appearing small.
The real irony is that this doesn’t really give us anything. If the lie is too big, then nobody will believe it. If the lie is too small, it doesn’t impress others enough to make a difference. The lie doesn’t really help us, and we run the catastrophic risk of being exposed as a fraud.
Worse still, we miss out on the power of smallness.
When you’re small, nobody cares if you fail.
If Apple’s next smartphone isn’t an immediate success, their stock price will plummet and the industry press will churn out countless stories about Apple’s immediate demise. If I release a product and it isn’t an immediate success, then hardware stores near my apartment will not suddenly run out of torches or pitchforks.
When you’re small, dogged persistence is seen as noble.
We love to cheer for the underdog. For the aspiring comedian that steps out onto the stage for the first time in his life. For the shy girl that bucks social trends and asks the guy she likes out on a date. It’s so powerful that the first rule in Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling is that we admire a character for trying more than for their successes. In Wall-E, we didn’t cheer for the powerful AI protecting the ship that housed all of humanity. We cheered for the little robot that was in love with a 29th-century iMac.
When you’re small, you are underestimated.
Everybody expects that you will go down in flames. If you can merely crash without catching fire, you will have vastly exceeded expectations. This is due in part to a cognitive bias called the empathy gap, which causes people to be more generous, and less cunning, when dealing with those they see as much less powerful then themselves.
Being small in the eyes of others is so terrifying that we lose sight of the advantages of being who we really are. If the guy my friend had met had been himself, rather than the person he thought she wanted, he would have had a date with a girl that was happy to see him. Instead, he was humiliated by an angry woman in front of the entire bar.
The power of being small starts when we stop pretending to be big.