Does the internet lie? (Hint: Yes.)


Yesterday, I saw someone spin this very plausible theory about why it’s so repellent when someone brags about their IQ on the internet. (For the record, each time I’ve been tested I’ve been told that I’m “off the charts” and “almost certainly the smartest man that has ever lived” — their words, not mine.)

It went something like, “Well, people who brag about their IQ on the internet are narcissists, who have nothing worth bragging about except their intelligence. That’s why they’re so off-putting.”

Except narcissts aren’t off-putting. Not at first, anyways. According to Back et al., “Narcissism leads to popularity at first sight.” Holtzman and Strube confirms, “A meta-analysis (N > 1000) reveals a small but reliable positive narcissism–attractiveness correlation that approaches the largest known personality–attractiveness correlations.”

The real reason it’s off putting? It’s probably false. The probability that someone is wrong about their IQ is, I’d estimate, at least one in four. They might have taken some fake online test, “misremember” their score, taken it at the age of seven, that sort of thing. Or, you know, they could be lying.

The distribution of pathological liars in the general population is not clear. Wikipedia suggests 1 in 1000 among repeat juvenile offenders, but given the prevalence of other mental illnesses — psychopathy at 1 percent and depression at 7 percent — I expect that’s a lower bound.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, these days, when I come across an unbelievable story on the internet, I try not to believe it.

You've read this far -- want more? Join the newsletter and I'll e-mail you when new articles are posted, along with the ideas that I don't share anywhere else.

Two e-mails per month. Zero spam. Unsubscribe at any time. I promise to treat your e-mail with respect.