Freakonomics Radio: ‘Faking It’

President Barack Obama goes to church. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Freakonomics Radio

“Faking It”: Society gets by on life’s little deceptions. So how do they work, and how did they get Barack Obama elected? Listen to a kosher-keeping bacon lover, a fake father and charlatan churchgoer, and one of the Game Change authors.

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Not long ago, we published a blog post by a woman in Texas whose family, she explained, “fakes Christianity for social reasons.” It was such an intriguing topic that we’ve turned it into a full-blown podcast. Thus the latest episode of Freakonomics Radio: “Faking It.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes here; get the RSS feed here; or listen live via the box at right.) It explores some of the many ways in which so many of us fake it — religiously, sure, but also in politics, in social situations and in the bedroom. Is all this faking a menace to society? Or do we all benefit from everyone else’s fakery? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

The episode was also inspired by a fascinating passage about Barack Obama in the book Game Change. So you’ll hear from Mark Halperin, one of the book’s authors, who will explain the dilemma that had Obama faking it. You’ll also hear from Kara Newman, a kosher-keeping food writer, who comes clean on her illicit love for bacon; and from a guy we call Brian, who maintains a series of mirages about his faith and family.

One of the best parts of making this episode was the interview with William Ian Miller, a law professor at the University of Michigan, who wrote a book called Faking It. Miller’s the guy who may convince you — at least he convinced me — that the way we look at fakery may be all wrong.

Audio Transcript

Stephen J. DUBNER: You keep kosher. How kosher do you keep?

KARA: Extremely kosher. We allow no non-kosher foods into our kitchen, our refrigerator; we have three different sets of plates, plus another one for Passover—the whole nine yards.

DUBNER: What’s your relationship with bacon?

KARA: It’s secret and illicit--It was probably the first thing that I started cheating with.

DUBNER: You cheat with bacon?

KARA: Again, not in my own kitchen, but I’ll go out and order bacon and pancakes. But at home it would be simply pancakes.

DUBNER: Now, does you husband know about this?

KARA: He knows, he knows, he’s very forgiving.

DUBNER: He knows because you tell him, or because you come home with the scent of your lover on your lips?

KARA: A little of both, I have to admit.

DUBNER: So you’re not really faking it with him, correct?

KARA: Correct, but we don’t tell my mother-in-law.

ANNOUNCER: This is Freakonomics Radio, a new podcast about the hidden side of ... everything.  In this episode, Faking it.  How everyone from the President of the United States to a kosher-keeping bacon lover lives in a state of fallen grace. All the time. And gets by. Here's your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: If the human psyche were a big map, nestled somewhere between the Sea of Cheating and the Valley of Lying, you'd come to the Kingdom of Faking It. I know what you're thinking: Nome-- I don't fake it. You know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking President Obama probably used to tell himself the same thing. Our story begins in March, 2008, on MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olberman.”

[Barack OBAMA: This is somebody who I have known for 17 years, helped bring me to Jesus, and helped bring me to church. And he and I have a relationship—he’s like an uncle who has talked to me – not about political things, not about social views, as much as about faith and God and family. And he’s somebody who is widely respected throughout Chicago and around the country for many of the things he’s done not only as a pastor but as a preacher.]

DUBNER: That pastor, preacher and uncle to Barack Obama was Jeremiah Wright. You maight remember some other things Reverend Wright had to say -- that America deserved the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that blacks shouldn't say "God Bless America" -- they should say "God Damn America."  When videotapes of those sermons were made public, they got Obama in a lot of trouble.

Mark HALPERIN: After the videotapes surfaced, the biggest question that Obama faced was, how did you sit in church all those years and listen to these sermons?

DUBNER: This is Mark Halperin of Time magazine; he's the co-author, along with John Heileman, of Game Change, the definitive book about the 2008 election.

HALPERIN: How could you not have stormed out, how could you have spoken approvingly of Jeremiah Wright on the campaign trail, borrowed from one of his sermons  the title of your book, “The Audacity of Hope? People were confused by that. It did not seem like Barack Obama would sit quietly and listen to those sermons and yet there they were on videotape week after week.  And Barack Obama was faced with a choice, as was his campaign. Because the answer was not something they could say.

DUBNER: Listen carefully to Halperin here . The answer was not something they could say.

HALPERIN: The answer was that the Obamas had not been regular church-goers to say the least during the period of these sermons.  After their daughters were born, like a lot of people of their demographic they stopped going to church except on rare occasions. That was the answer that would have solved problem A, which was how did you listen to all these sermons?  The answer was we didn’t because we didn’t go to church.  But giving that real answer would have created problem B, which was how are you someone who has put himself forward as a man of God, who has put faith so central to the campaign, and sort of your reason for being in public life, how could you not have gone to church all those years? So, faced with solving problem A with the honest explanation the campaign decided not to give it because they didn’t want to create problem B.

DUBNER: Alright. So we're shocked -- shocked -- to learn that a politician fakes piety. But Obama got caught. The best way out of the Reverend Wright trouble would have been to say, Hey, I didn't actually go to church all that much. And that would have been worse. Because here's a man whose faith became an enduring issue -- remember him talking about the "bitter" Pennsylvania voters who "cling to guns or religion," or all the voters who were sure that Obama was a Muslim?  Admitting he'd faked it all along would have hurt Obama's image as a devout Christian. Somehow, he managed to fake it all the way to the White House.

[OBAMA: We remain a young nation.  But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.  The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation:  the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.]

DUBNER: So politicians fake Christianity. Jews fake keeping kosher. Is this immoral behavior, or maybe a sign that the binds of religion are too tight? Here's a guy whose name -- well, his fake name -- is Brian.  He's 34, married, an IT guy who works for a financial services company in Atlanta.

BRIAN: So, a lot of times our jobs require us to travel, myself not so much anymore, but my wife was doing several internships in Mississippi for her job that required her to move from small town to small town.  One of the things that we’ve noticed is that when you’re dealing with a lot of these small town folks, they do a lot of inquiry, not only what your religious beliefs are, your views on how many children you have, where do you live, that type of thing.  We’re not avid or regular church-goers, and we’re double-income, no kids, and quite happy that way, no plans on having any children, but in the South you tell somebody something like that and they look at you like you’ve got horns growing out of your head. And what we’ve found is that it’s much easier to regurgitate what people are expecting to hear rather than going on about what your actual beliefs are, just to make things a little bit easier for you while you have to be there working.

DUBNER: So what then is the alternate version that you offer to people in a work environment?

BRIAN: Most of the time, as a man, I don’t get a lot of pressure about the whole kid thing.  But my wife is a different matter.  So usually it’s something to the effect of, “well I’ve been in school for a long time, I’m just waiting until I’m done, I can’t wait to have children, I want to have two or three.”   Often times, to where do you go to church, here in the deep South, the safe answer is to say some variation of a Baptist church, is usually pretty good.

DUBNER: So do you make up the name of a church, do you research churches in the area, what do you do?

BRIAN: You do a little bit of research on the web to find one.  And one of the advantages of a lot of the mega-churches these days is most of them are so large and have so many services that you could attend the same church as someone for years and not even realize that they go there too.

DUBNER: So what is the advantage of faking it for you?

BRIAN: Really I look at it as the oil that keeps the cog running smoothly.  Honestly, most of the time, when you’re at a place for a short amount of time, you have an objective that you have to accomplish pretty quickly, and you don't really want to stand out, you don’t really want to make a stand and challenge peoples’ beliefs.  You just really want to be pragmatic and get through it as best you can.

DUBNER: So it sounds like you and you wife are pretty accomplished fakers.  Now, do you feel anybody’s being hurt in the process?

BRIAN: I really don’t think that they are.  You know I’ve thought a lot about this at times. To me it’s no different than taking up golf if your boss is into golf; it’s no different than finding some hobby that’s common among your management structure and trying to adopt that to fit in.

DUBNER: Although the example would be to say you play golf, but not actually play it. Because you say you’re a church-goer and you say you’re headed towards having children, but you actually have no intention of doing so.

BRIAN: That’s a good point. I just hope I’m never called on it in that regard. I’d hate to have to go with the follow through.

DUBNER: But you haven’t resorted to carrying around pictures of other peoples’ children around in your wallet?

BRIAN: No – not yet.

DUBNER: Brian, Brian, Brian. I know people who think they're faking it when they wear a push-up bra, when they tell Nana how much they love her pot roast. But Brian takes his faking to a whole other level. He researches his fakes in order to get the maximum mileage out of his lies. Mark Halperin's book “Game Change” was mostly about the Obamas and Clintons, the McCains and the Palins -- that's a whole lot of faking right there -- but if you're looking for the guy who lapped everybody -- that's John Edwards.

HALPERIN: The story of John Edwards winning the gold medal in fakery in the 2008 campaign is one that has a lot of resonance for people.  In part because it’s like a slow motion car crash.  It’s just incredibly compelling to watch, but also I think that people see in John Edwards taking the fakery of a politician to a different level.  Americans I think are understandably and admirably skeptical of their politicians as are journalists.  But what John Edwards did was take it to a new level, and became the horrible manifestation of a lot of peoples’ worst fears about politicians--that they don’t just fake it when they need to, or at critical moments when they have no other choice, but in the main they’re honest public servants. Edwards for this period of the campaign was faking it nonstop, trying to negotiate to be vice presidential running mate, or attorney general, or speak at the democratic convention when he knew that he had a child that was being born out of wedlock, and then was born out of wedlock. That’s a level of fakery that is just striking, and I spent a fair amount of time with him right before the Iowa Caucuses when the National Enquirer had started to expose his web of lies, when he was under extraordinary pressure from his wife, their marriage was in a very bad way.  And every minute I spent with him on the campaign trail in Iowa, he couldn’t have been more intense, more pumped up, more focused, or so it seemed.  That is a level of fakery that is to this day kind of spooky to me.

Bill MILLER: Well I’m Bill Miller.  William Ian Miller is the name on my books, and I’m a law professor at the University of Michigan.

DUBNER: And, what led you to write a book called “Faking It”?

MILL: My own anxieties about being a law professor, because I’m really a medieval historian.  But I teach a course in property, and I’m always feeling like I’m going to be exposed by the drop of a hat by one kid who asks a question just a little too hard.

DUBNER: Now Bill, this may be an obvious question or an obvious answer, but why do we fake things?  If we ask the same question about, let’s say, cheating, it’s obvious.  People cheat to get what they want.  But is there something different about faking it?

MILLER: Yeah, sure. I’m not interested in big cons or setups or something like that. I’m just interested in getting through your daily conversation or your job or whatever. I don’t think we have any choice.  We have to fake it.  We just can’t be 100% authentic at any one time.  Of course, there’s nothing more phony than people who present themselves as authentic, right?

DUBNER: So it sounds to me like you are saying that if you can’t fake you can’t really make it in our society.  What do all those people who can’t fake it do? What do they become?

MILLER: Serial killers, or they’re in mental hospitals.

DUBNER: Or economists.

MILLER: Or economists, yes.  I mean by pretending that we’re rational actors all the time.  But here’s the standard one. Consider apology: the words “I’m sorry.” How many times in your life did oyu mean them? So they’re said – and how do we teach our kids to be sorry? We say to the one little kid who hits the other little kid, “say you’re sorry.”  “I’m sorry.”  “Say you’re sorry.”  “I’m sorry.”  “Say it like you mean it.”  And that’s how we teach how to be sorry, and that works, and we sneer it out.  Consider the words “I love you.”  Those are often always faked, at least when I was in my teenage years.  Those were just purely instrumental words.

DUBNER: But I do love you. I am sorry. Yeah, sure I am. I'm a big fat faker, just like John Edwards and Barack Obama, just like Brian, the guy with fake friends and a fake church, and Kara -- that's the woman who can't tell her kosher-keeping family how much she loves bacon. Scientists have a framework for talking about this problem: "signaling theory." It's my way of telling the world that I'm a good friend ... I'm not a sociopath ... I'm a good candidate for that job you're offering, or that last slot you have at an Ivy League school, or the sex you're willing to have with someone. (And yeah, you'll fake the orgasm.) I'm faking it because I want you to like me, and I know I'm not worth liking.

MILLER: Well, no, we’re all like that a little bit, aren’t we? I mean, we’re all like that to get through the day.  I mean, as long as we’re not out to swindle somebody by these kind of fakeries we put on, as long as we’re just making them a little happier and getting out of a social situation with our dignity and honor somewhat intact without looking like a fool, what’s the blame, what’s wrong with that?

DUBNER: So if I understand it correctly, what you’re saying is faking it is part of our sanity, and that rather than decry it we need to embrace the fakery a little bit.

MILLER: Yeah, uh-huh.

DUBNER: Now you are a medievalist by training.

MILLER: By training and trade, yeah.

DUBNER: And you could tell us some Old Norse tales.

MILLER: I could tell you some wonderful old tales.

DUBNER: And I’m guessing that they faked it too.

MILLER: Well that’s actually where I got interested in faking it, was how do these guys who are in this culture of honor where the stakes are high, your honor is on the line all the time, and it might have to backed up with your life, or you might have to fight.  Well not everybody can be the toughest guy around.  Not everybody can be blessed with courage.  So how do you fake looking tough enough that people at least will let you get by with your honor intact?    And you better believe that they were a highly anxious people.  They were nervous wrecks.

DUBNER: What if we instituted a fake-free day? Twenty-four hours where everyone in America was allowed and obliged to not fake it.

MILLER: Do you know what the homicide rate would be on that day?

DUBNER: A wee bit higher?

MILLER: I’d say that if you actually gave voice to all your transient sentiments you’d be dead, or swindled.  And the other thing is, why think that our transient sentiments, like this immediate desire to let’s say want to punch somebody, or an immediate desire to have sex, or something like that, jump on somebody, is us, the real me or the real you?  Why not think that the more continual, durational, long duration us is us?  And if I did actually, at this moment, act on my hostile feeling to punch you, the me that kind of had to live with me five minutes later would be greatly distressed.

DUBNER: I don't know about you, but when Bill Miller started talking, I found it pretty depressing -- the idea that we all fake it all the time in just about every realm. Who could be happy about that? But he's pretty convincing, isn't he? The way he sees it, faking it isn't only part of our socialization -- it's part of our civilization. It's how we get along. We live on this increasingly crowded and competitive planet, with so many people doing so many terrible things.  But just think about all the opportunities we pass up to do terrible things. So maybe Miller's right: faking it is a coping mechanism, the one thing that stands between us and getting killed every day. It gives us a chance to tell our transient sentiments to move along.  We're civilized people, damn it, even if the smell of bacon does make us act like animals.

DUBNER: So one last question, for real.  Mark Halperin, you’re a political reporter, you’ve covered a lot of politicians some who have faked it extravagantly, what about you? What are some things that you’ve faked?

HALPERIN: This is like a Washington thing, where I grew up. And that is when you are introduced to someone in Washington you always say, nice to see you, rather than nice to meet you, because you may have met them before and not remembered. And I’ve become extraordinarily good, but every time I do it I feel a little fakey, when I say nice to see you, because I’m pretty sure I’ve never met them, but I don’t want to take that two percent risk.

DUBNER: Have you faked anything else?

HALPERIN: I fake enjoying doing podcasts.  No, I love doing podcasts.


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  1. GLK says:

    I once worked with a Jewish fellow who admitted to me that he was agnostic. He lived in a Jewish neighborhood and stayed home during the Jewish Holidays simply because he didn’t want his neighbors to know his true belief. It is amazing what social pressures make people do.

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  2. Al V. says:

    Isn’t fakery of this type just a more extreme version of the social falsehoods we all commit every day? Such as telling a host/ess that we enjoyed a meal we could barely eat, or telling a friend how much we love an ugly outfit?

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  3. Chris R says:

    Excellent podcast. Looking forward to further analysis in this area. I happen to believe faking relious belief causes more serious effects than is often admitted by our society. Sure, faking religious belief to your elderly grandmother may be quite harmless. On the other hand, faking religious belief to your children is quite another story.

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  4. Evans says:

    Ever since the 1980s, Washington has gulled its citizens and creditors by debasing official statistics, the vital instruments with which the vigor and muscle of the American economy are measured.
    The effect has been to create a false sense of economic achievement and rectitude, allowing us to maintain artificially low interest rates, massive government borrowing, and a dangerous reliance on mortgage and financial debt even as real economic growth has been slower than claimed.
    The corruption has tainted the very measures that most shape public perception of the economy:
    The monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI), which serves as the chief bellwether of inflation;
    The quarterly Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which tracks the U.S. economy’s overall growth;
    The monthly unemployment figure, which for the general public is perhaps the most vivid indicator of economic health or infirmity.
    The truth, though it would not exactly set Americans free, would at least open a window to wider economic and political understanding. Readers should ask themselves how much angrier the electorate might be if the media, over the past five years, had been citing 8.7 percent unemployment (instead of 17 percent), and average annual growth in the 1 percent range (instead of the 3-4 percent range).
    The real numbers, to most economically minded Americans, would be a face full of cold water. Based on the criteria in place a quarter century ago, today’s U.S. unemployment rate is somewhere between 13 percent and 17 percent; economic growth since the recession of 1999 has been mediocre, despite a huge surge in the wealth and incomes of the superrich, and we are falling back into recession.”
    The cleat of reality is out there folks-just don’t expect to get it from the government.

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  5. JoshK says:

    Al V., Why do you tell your friends you love their ugly outfits, aren’t they your friends? Real friends don’t let friends wear ugly outfits.

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  6. GLK says:

    Isn’t fakery of this type just a more extreme version of the social falsehoods we all commit every day? Such as telling a host/ess that we enjoyed a meal we could barely eat, or telling a friend how much we love an ugly outfit?
    Perhaps your examples fall under the catagory of politeness. I might tell someone I enjoyed their meal or like their outfit because I’m protecting their feelings. But when someone keeps their beliefs to themselves to avoid potential judgement/ridicule it is because they are protecting their own feelings. That to my mind is a bit more “fake.”

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  7. Laura Einstein says:

    The most common Faking it is this: carrying massive credit card debt due to their income unable to cover DAILY
    Expense yet claim the debt is due to some big ticket items or vacation.
    I would say at least half our so called middle class are Faking IT on almost daily basis.
    Few years ago, when gas price increased some 27 cents,
    there were those massive outcry on radio, TV, and newspaper. How many mailes you drive per week?
    How come your middle class income can’t even cover very
    insignificant price increase? Are most American belong to
    “middle class” in the first place??
    Remember “homeownership is all time high” then waves foreclosures across this nation.
    The most destructive human behavior is Self-Deception !

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