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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014 12:01 am

Lord of the lies

In social situations, my boyfriend will often pretend to have read books I know he hasn’t. He doesn’t just fake it with some casual “Yeah, I read that.” He will try to say something deep and philosophical, but can end up not making much sense. He’s too smart to need to do this. Is there something I can say to persuade him to stop? –Embarrassed

Your boyfriend’s just lucky nobody’s suspected he’s lying about what he’s read and tried to trip him up – maybe with “It’s like Heathcliff wandering the moors searching for Cathy after she was abducted by aliens!” or “What a relief when Romeo rushed Juliet to the hospital and they pumped her stomach!”

Obviously, if you’re at the English department’s afternoon tea and you don’t know your Homer from your Homer Simpson, there’s a problem. But the truth is, not every intelligent person is well-read. People show their intelligence in how they solve the problems life throws them. And actually, as psychologist Carol Dweck observes in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, the people most likely to squander the intelligence they have are those who measure their self-worth through their intellectual performance – “(caring) so much about looking smart that they act dumb.”

Dweck finds in her research that this thinking comes out of a “fixed mindset” – the self-improvement-stunting belief that intelligence and ability are set and not changeable, rather than what seems to be the case: that you can work to improve yourself (the “growth mindset”). With the growth mindset, you’re motivated to learn and grow, and failure is just a sign that you need to keep trying. For fixed-mindset people, success is about proving they’re already smart and talented, and the need to work to accomplish things is a sign of being dumb. Fixed-mindsetters actually have a dislike for hard work, which Dweck says makes sense, because if you think effort is for idiots, what else is there to do but avoid it?

Sure, your boyfriend could simply be lazy – wanting to look smart but thinking he’d take a shortcut getting there. But chances are, there’s more to it than that. Build him up – tell him you respect his mind, and then tell him you can’t bear to see him faking it. Explain Dweck’s thinking, and lay out her advice (from her most recent book, Mindset) for escaping the fixed mindset: First, listen for the fixed-mindset voice and talk back to it with the growth mindset voice: “Hey, Self…you succeed by working to learn, not pretending you’ve got the Library of Alexandria in your baseball hat!” Next, take growth-mindset action: Risk admitting that you haven’t read something and note how people shrug or maybe respect your honesty; they don’t get up on furniture and pelt you with old fruit. Finally, get reading – perhaps with a 15- to 20-page nightly quota – and enjoy the reward: having something meaningful to say instead of having to get by on a guess that The Catcher in the Rye is the coming-of-age story of a food inspector at a bread factory.

© 2014, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave., #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email ( Weekly radio show:


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