Features & Columns

Advice Goddess: Honesty Really
the Best Policy?

I have a close friend whose relationships always end badly. The new guy she's dating has a reputation as a user. My friend's very successful, and I believe he's dating her for her business contacts. I need to be honest with her about this. How should I do that—considering she falls in love hard and fast?—Caring Amiga

People will insist that they absolutely want you to be honest with them when they're doing anything stupid—and then immediately reward you for it by exiling you from Western society to live and herd goats with a Bedouin family.

Yes, even well-intentioned honesty is often counterproductive. This might be hard for you to swallow, considering how warning your friend about this guy probably seems like warning her that she's about to be hit by a bus. And sure, if that were the case, upon your "YO! WATCH OUT!" she'd whirl around and leap out of the way—not stand her ground and snap: "You dunno what you're talking about. Buses love me!"

Though it's hard to deny the existence of a 24-ton object hurtling toward us, seeing things accurately is not always the first order of the human perceptual system. In fact, evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton explains that we seem to have evolved to make the least costly perceptual error in a situation—a subconscious calculation that sometimes leads to our over-perceiving or under-perceiving risks or opportunities. For example, in the physical risk domain, we are predisposed to over-perceive that stick in the rustling leaves as a snake because it's far more costly to die from a snake bite than to "die" of embarrassment when our peeps mock us for jumping out of our skin at a sinister-looking twig.

In relationships, social psychologist Garth Fletcher and his colleagues find that it's sometimes in our interest to err on the side of "positivity"—the rosy view—over "accuracy." (Love is blind versus love gets Lasik!) Whether positivity or accuracy is active is context-dependent, meaning it's determined by our situation. So, for example, when you're in no rush to settle down, positivity vision prevails.

Unfortunately, your even hinting that this guy may have ulterior motives is likely to make your friend snarlingly defensive, which is to say she may end up throwing somebody out of her life, and it probably won't be him. Of course, it's possible that you're wrong about the guy. Regardless, per the Fletcher team's finding, your friend's being able to see anything beyond how dreamypants he is may be driven by context—like when maintaining the rosy view would prove fatal to her achieving some essential goal.

I'm a single guy, and I just never know how to start conversations with girls. I have a sense of humor, but I'm bad at coming up with funny lines on the fly. I've thought of using a "line," but if I were a girl, hearing one would just make me annoyed. Do you have any advice on good conversation starters?—Speechless

There's a reason the line from that chick flick is "You had me at hello" and not "You had me at 'Those jugs yours?'"

Granted, it's better if you can be funny when hitting on girls. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller believes "humor production ability" is a "hard-to-fake" sign of intelligence in a potential partner. Research by Miller and others suggests he's right about finding correlations between humor and "verbal creativity" and intelligence. But note "hard-to-fake." Trying to be funny when you aren't all that funny is about as successful a tactic as trying to remove someone's appendix when you aren't really a doctor.

However, even if you aren't naturally funny, what you can be is genuine. To do this, just say something—perhaps about something in the environment. Ask about that book she's carrying or whether she's survived the vegan Reuben. Maybe comment on the attire of the two armed men running out of the place with a bag of money. Just saying something is basically like opening a tiny door to see whether anything's behind it. If a woman finds you attractive, she'll pick up and respond—and probably not by announcing that if you were the last man on earth, she'd develop a sexual attraction to trees.