Faking It

NBC News anchor Brian Williams publicly admitted yesterday that a story he had been telling about a wartime experience in Iraq was false, and apologized.  Williams had said, including as recently as a week ago, that while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003 he was aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and forced down.  That didn’t happen; Williams and an NBC crew were aboard a following aircraft that was unhit.

The Williams incident is interesting, because as the story linked above indicates, he initially accurately recounted that he was not in the chopper that was hit by rocket fire.  But over the intervening years the story morphed, and last week in a tribute to a soldier at a hockey game Williams said “the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”  Why did the story morph?  Williams attributes it to the “fog of memory” after 12 years and constant viewing of the video of him inspecting the impact area, which caused him to “conflate” his experience with that of the soldiers in the stricken helicopter.

Of course, only Brian Williams knows how and why the real story became submerged beneath the fake one.  It’s hard to imagine ever becoming confused about whether you were in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket and personally felt the jolt of the impact and the fear about survival and the chaos of the forced landing — even if it was 12 years ago and you were a big-time newscaster who has had lots of exciting experiences since.

Many people might attribute the change in the story, instead, to the human tendency to exaggerate actual experiences to make our lives seem more interesting and worthy.  It’s a common phenomenon — who can forget, for example, Hillary Clinton’s debunked claim to have run across a Bosnian airport tarmac under sniper fire? — and it’s reflected in false resume entries, “fish stories,” and tales that grow in the telling over the years until the recounted story bears only a faint connection to the reality of the actual incident.

This doesn’t excuse a news reporter telling a false story, of course — but it does make you wonder how many of the personal incidents we hear about from public figures are true.  My grandmother used to say:  “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.”  It’s not a bad rule of thumb.

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Faking It Since The Crib

Some new research indicates that babies as young as seven months engage in fake crying episodes to get attention. Although the research is based on detailed observation of only two infants and evaluation of their apparent condition before and after crying, it confirms what many parents have always thought was true — at a very young age, children become adept at manipulating their parents. Interestingly, the study suggests that fake crying may be more prevalent when the baby has an older sibling and must use fake crying to compete for attention.

Babies who engage in fake crying must engage in some form of cause and effect analysis. At first they cry only when they are hungry or uncomfortable, and when they cry someone comes to help. The next analytical step is a big one — they decide that even if they aren’t hungry or uncomfortable, they can cry anyway . . . and then they see that someone will come and keep them company. It’s amazingly complex reasoning for an infant, and it also shows that the baby has realized that the universe is not an utterly random series of events. It’s part of the process of learning that the baby is an individual that can exercise some limited control over her surroundings. My guess is that that important realization occurs at an almost intuitive level.

As any parent knows, once the fake crying threshold is passed a child will push the envelope to determine the boundaries of what they can and cannot do — which is why the “terrible twos” are so terrible. The child learns that saying “no” to everything doesn’t work, that you can’t successfully lie about eating forbidden candy with chocolate all over your face, and other trial-and-error life lessons that get incorporated into the child’s persona. The responses change when the child ventures outside the family unit to play with other children and realizes that crying every time they suffer a reversal isn’t going to do anything except get them a reputation as a crybaby. Eventually the child is ready to dive into the much more complex relationships, emotional interplay, and power games of the teenage years and finally emerges as an adult, with scheming, conniving, “faking it” concepts well understood.

It’s fascinating, but not surprising, that “faking it” begins at such a tender age. The fake crying of the newborn is but the first step in a long process of learning how to successfully interact with the human beings around you. Because life is all about how you deal with people, the precise lessons learned from those “faking it” episodes are crucial.