Super Bowl

Sex, Lies, and Reality Television

Why honesty is not always the best policy

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Moment of Truth, the ludicrously hyped Fox reality series where contestants answer intrusive questions for a shot at $500,000, is back for its second "shocking" season, and just like its first "shocking" season (which only ended a couple months ago), the new one delivers about as much voltage as a flat can of Coke. A married woman admits she's cheated on her husband? That revelation wouldn't even earn her a spot in Jerry Springer's studio audience. A man has gambling debts he hid from his wife? Until that man actually bets and loses his wife in a poker game, Dr. Phil is not interested.

If the disclosures that occur on Moment of Truth aren't that alarming, however, the show does have one intriguing aspect: Contestants routinely opt out of the game after reaching the $100,000 mark. In doing so, they're essentially acknowledging that their secrets are worth more than the additional $400,000 that is theirs for the taking, simply for answering a few more questions accurately. In an age where people expose every last detail about themselves for no payoff save a few extra MySpace readers, this aspect of the game is genuinely shocking. At least a handful of people in America still value privacy.

Meanwhile, a British company has developed a camera that can see through clothes at 80 feet. Lawmakers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania are contemplating a measure that will make it mandatory for certain businesses to operate security cameras on their premises around the clock. Soon, our surveillance tools will be more omniscient than God, but will they be as forgiving? On Moment of Truth, the contestants aren't spies or terrorists or serial killers—they're waiters and hair salon assistants and housewives. They think of themselves as decent people. "On a daily basis, would you say you try to be honest with everyone you meet?" host Mark Walberg asks a contestant, during a friendly moment of good-cop banter before the formal interrogation begins.

"I do," the woman replies. "I'm a big believer in honesty."

"Question two," Walberg continues, his voice sharpening to signify his shift into bad-cop mode. "Have you ever told a credit card company that a charge was not yours, when in fact you knew it was?"

"Um, yes, I have," the woman answers sheepishly.

Every episode follows the same downward trajectory. The boyishly handsome former NFL quarterback? The pleasant-looking New York housewife? Within minutes, they all look like creeps—selfish, deceitful, hypocritical, morally deficient. They touch clients inappropriately. They hit strangers' cars and don't leave a note. They snoop through the desks of their co-workers. They're happy when their siblings experience misfortune.

Most of us have committed similar indiscretions, of course—but there's only so many people Mark Walberg can fit into his schedule. Lucky for us, that's how justice works in a general. As a culture, we're not very good at detecting wrongdoing, or meting out punishment when we do. Such inefficiencies gives us the freedom to break speed limits, overestimate tax write-offs, and steal grapes from the supermarket, and it also gives us the freedom to conceive of ourselves as generally decent sorts. Our forgetfulness helps too. Sure, we may pick our nose from time to time, or drive with our children sitting on our laps when they should be in a carseat, or outsource our pleasure fulfillment to paid professionals. But we don't dwell. We forget these lesser moments, and since there's no easily accessible public record of them, who's to know? Bad people? Not us. In fact, 95% of the time, we're big believers in honesty.

Alas, the days of flying under the radar are coming to an end. Unless we're doing something wrong, we're told, the kind of pandemic surveillance that is just around the corner poses no threat to us—and yet look at how our most closely monitored celebrities are responding to such pressures. There's a chance, no doubt, that Britney and Lindsay are members of a terrorist cell in league with Al Qaeda, and the strain of potential exposure is what's making them so crazy. Or maybe it's just that a bottle of booze and a fistful of tranquilizers is a perfectly reasonable way to address the fact that every public moment of your life—and thus every little slip-up you make, not to mention the really spectacular ones—is going to get recorded, publicized, analyzed.

To his great credit, President Bush endures similar scrutiny, and yet he never forgets to wear his pants in public. But not everyone's made of such strong stuff. On the most talked-about episode of Moment of Truth, after a contestant already confessed to cheating on her husband and admitted that she was in love with another man on the day she got married, she was asked if she thought she was a good person. "Honestly, I think I am a good person," she replied, with apparent conviction, but the show's talking polygraph quickly set her straight: "That answer is false."

At first, the woman's mouth opened into a tiny circle of disbelief, then she attempted to make a case for herself. "I think that I have become a better person," she tried, but Walberg wasn't buying it. The machine said she was lying, he carefully explained. "Your truth is that you don't think you're a good person at all," he concluded, with all the moral authority that accrues from having presided over shows like 101 Biggest Celebrities Oops and Temptation Island.

And how, really, could she rebut that? In approximately five minutes, she'd admitted that her marriage was a farce, that she'd stolen money from a past employer, that she'd sooner give food to a stray dog than a homeless person. All she could do was nod in agreement. She was a bad person. The evidence was there. In the coming years, as we perfect our abilities to capture and catalog every misdeed we commit, it's a conclusion we're all likely to reach.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his reason archive here.

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  1. Damn. I’ve never seen this show. I’m a fan just from reading your article. You guys at Reason should do their advertising for them.

  2. Wasn’t there a speech in Team America: World Police about the virtue of being a dick?

  3. Have you ever knowingly posted a comment that, begged the question, was an ad hominem attack, or posited a false dilemma?

  4. Didn’t Plato have Socrates and Thrasymachus working on this with the whole “justice is the advantage of the stronger” deal?

    We all suck. We’ve known it for centuries. Anything else is just pretension.

  5. Have you ever knowingly posted a comment that, begged the question, was an ad hominem attack, or posited a false dilemma?

    No.

    ** THAT ANSWER IS FALSE **

    Dammit!

  6. From what I’ve seen of the show. It relies on a number of psychological traps to keep people from the big prizes such as using subjective questions that have answers which can vary over time. The “Do you think you’re a good person?” question is a perfect example. The correct response she had to give was determined during the lie-detector test given well in advance of the show. During the test, after being faced with the record of her flaws, she would likely answer with an honest no. The show is taped only after she’s had a chance to rationalize and defend herself. At that point, she could answer yes and be honest in her own mind. The result is a conflict in answers and she loses.

    Oh, and let’s not forget that lie detectors can be wrong. This is especially true with fuzzy or subjective questions.

  7. Lamar:

    We’re dicks! We’re reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks. And the Film Actors Guild are pussies. And Kim Jong Il is an asshole. Pussies don’t like dicks, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes: assholes that just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way. But the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem with dicks is: they fuck too much or fuck when it isn’t appropriate – and it takes a pussy to show them that. But sometimes, pussies can be so full of shit that they become assholes themselves… because pussies are an inch and half away from assholes. I don’t know much about this crazy, crazy world, but I do know this: If you don’t let us fuck this asshole, we’re going to have our dicks and pussies all covered in shit!

  8. On the plus side, at least “That answer is FALSE” has not entered common usage the way “You are the weakest link” did. I’m not sure what I’d do to someone using it but it would be with malice aforethought.

  9. Have you ever knowingly posted a comment that, begged the question, was an ad hominem attack, or posited a false dilemma?

    I can’t believe you asked me such an arrogant stupid question. You’re a dickhead.

  10. Reality TV is created by and for the scum of the earth.
    I have spoken.

  11. Have you ever knowingly posted a comment that, begged the question

    No. I always tell the truth, especially when I write. I am writing, thus, I am telling the truth.

    was an ad hominem attack

    No. Jesus, only asshats ask these kinds of questions.

    or posited a false dilemma?

    Look, you are either going to have to ask better questions or I am going to have to get Mr. T on your ass.

  12. Any way we can get Bush and Cheney on this show?

  13. Is it immoral to feed a stray dog rather than a homeless person? I’d feed the dog. Dogs are mostly awesome. Most people are awful. Even if we accept the hypothesis (plausible IMO) that homeless people are morally superior to, um, homed? people, my money still says the average lost dog is morally superior.

  14. Any way we can get Bush and Cheney on this show?

    Sure, but the polygraph results would be classified as state secrets.

  15. “lie-detector test”

    Eryk,

    Sorry to nit-pick, but there is no such thing as a lie detector. There’s a reason why polygraph tests aren’t admissible in court.

    -jcr

  16. JCR

    If you must nit pick, you should note that my point was that they aren’t reliable. Perhaps I should have clarified by using quotation marks around the term but I assumed the readers would not require them to get my meaning.

  17. This reminds me of the end state of civilization, as posited by Mr. Vernor Vinge in A Deepness in the Sky – “ubiquitous law enforcement”.

    We think the governance has opted for ubiquitous law enforcement.

    Pham whistled softly. Now every embedded computing system, down to a child’s rattle, was a governance utility. It was the most extreme form of social control ever invented. “So now they have to run everything.” The notion was terribly seductive to the authoritarian mind?

  18. I’m reminded of a science fiction story I read many years ago, involving some gizmo that allowed you to see anything & everything that happened in the past (up to a century or so ago). I forget how the story went, but I’ve grown rather fond of the idea of that gizmo, and the effects it would have on society.

    Basically, we’d have a society with no privacy and no secrets. It would be almost impossible to get away with a crime. We’d also have to face up to the rampant hypocrisy among us: we all like to think that we’re much better than we actually are, and this sort of gizmo would ruthlessly strip away our delusions.

    The effects on politics are particularly fun to contemplate.

  19. Bramblyspam,

    Steven Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke updated that idea in a novel called ‘The Light of Other Days’. I highly recommend it. It pretty much looks at the shitstorm that such a device would cause… and then dives right into said shitstorm.

  20. The show would be so much better if Mark Wahlberg hosted it.

  21. this article misses the point of the show completely

    its about guessing polygraph results. Which answers gave a result of “deceptive” on the test?

    its not about protecting your secrets. you may think you answered a question truthfully yet the polygraph gave a negative result, ergo the contestant losing in that episode.

  22. I wonder how much of it is fake. It’s too reminiscent of Jerry Springer.

  23. I forget how the story went,

    If it’s the one I remember, people became obsessed with the past, their dead children or something, and it had to be Destroyed For The Good Of Humanity.

  24. Overkiller,

    At last!!! A Vernor Vinge fan. So hard to find them. I was so lonely . . .

  25. The story I read was evidently The Dead Past, by Isaac Asimov. It’s kinda nice to know that others have taken up the idea and explored it some more.

  26. I stumbled onto this godawful show and now have become addicted to it. As a legal assistant, my fascination isn’t with the loss of privacy that Beato raises, but “admissions of guilt” on the part of money-grubbing contestants who seem to fail to realize that they are setting themselves up professionally.

    Yes, Er?k is right about polygraphs, but if someone admits to an action (“Have you ever touched a female patient inappropriately as a paramedic?” “Yes, I have.” “That answer is TRUE”) on tape, on national TV, it could become grounds for employers or others to use for legal actions (“Well, he admitted to touching her.”)

    Thus, my fascination with this latest televised mess from FOX Network.

    Sort of like watching idiots on “COPS,” who don’t know or care about their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, or self-incrimination just because a TV crew’s camera is pointed at their face.

  27. Epi,
    “We’re dicks! We’re reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks. And the Film Actors Guild are pussies. And Kim Jong Il is an asshole. Pussies don’t like dicks, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes: assholes that just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way. But the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem with dicks is: they fuck too much or fuck when it isn’t appropriate – and it takes a pussy to show them that. But sometimes, pussies can be so full of shit that they become assholes themselves… because pussies are an inch and half away from assholes. I don’t know much about this crazy, crazy world, but I do know this: If you don’t let us fuck this asshole, we’re going to have our dicks and pussies all covered in shit!”

    God Damn!! I so want McCain to use this at one of the debates!!

  28. In addition to the show asking subjective, ambiguous questions that are difficult to answer honestly: “Do you think you’re a good person?” to trip up people, there’s also the way that they find contestants by only choosing people who have secrets they want to hide. I suspect they look to see if they lied and were evasive (and therefore, would be embarrassed) if they were to expose these secrets to family and friends. That’s what makes the train wreck fun to watch.

    I would “trick” the show by lying about details that, while would be embarrassing to others, I personally don’t think are a big deal.

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