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Poker face

So, the cheating student I blogged about the other day finally came in to my office.  I was (only mildly) surprised that he denied it, considering that the evidence was overwhelming.  But what really surprised me was his persistence.  Even after I pointed out to him precisely how I knew that he cheated, he continued to deny it.  He simply guessed all the right answers without doing any work.  And that's the story he was sticking with.  It seemed entirely bizarre to me.  I honestly didn't know what to think or how to respond.  I was just sort of dumbfounded.

What really stuck out to me, though, was that he seemed to sincerely believe that he was telling me the truth.  Whether he really did believe it himself or not, he certainly wasn't giving any signs of lying.  He was clearly very practiced in the art.  It was certainly an eye-opening experience for me.

There's a game I played as a youth that made me extremely uncomfortable.  It's called "BS" (or, at least, that's what we called it).  The point of the game was to lay down cards starting from 2s and going up to aces in sequence.  The first person to run out of cards would be the winner.  It was sometimes necessary to lie in the game because it may be your turn and you need to lay down 7s but don't have any.  But, whether it was necessary to lie or not, it was always permitted unless someone called you on it.  I disliked the game very much because it always bothered me when I was forced to lie.  I never did lie when I actually had the cards necessary (although, many times people did, for example if they had 1 king, but laid down another card with it and said it was 2 kings).

I played poker with my siblings when I was young.  We didn't play right.  We didn't gamble--not even plastic chips.  All we did was deal out 5 cards to each player.  Then, each turn, we'd be allowed to trade in any or all of our cards.  We did that for 2 turns or so and then all laid our hands down and the highest hand won.  Anyone who's familiar with poker will understand this misses the whole point of the game.  As a child, I believed that the point of the game was to try to get the best hand possible.  It wasn't until I was playing Texas hold'em with some friends my first year of college that I realized I had been wrong.  I had 3 queens in my hand and the fourth was played on the table.  I bet a huge amount of chips.  Everyone else folded.  I didn't realize that I had been playing wrong all along until someone said that I "flopped".

I'm starting to realize that some people live life as though it's a poker game.  It's such a bizarre concept to me.  I've seen examples of it happening before, and been bewildered by it.  For example, when I was 21 I tried selling Kirby vacuums for a while.  It didn't work well.  I never sold a single one.  I remember during the "group interview" and during the training for the job the presenter said some things that I really found appealing.  I later found out that they were complete lies.  He was just saying them because he knew that's what I wanted to hear.  It was disappointing, to be sure.  I felt bad for having been so gullible as to believe him.  But more so, I felt like he was awful for having lied so blatantly.

A few times now I have accused a student of cheating and he flat-out denies it.  When he denies it, I feel an obligation to believe him.  Why do I feel this way?  Because I put myself in his shoes.  I have never cheated on a test in my life.  If a teacher were to accuse me of cheating, I would be affronted and I would deny having cheated.  I would want the teacher to believe me when I denied it because I would personally know that I'm telling the truth.  If the teacher were to disbelieve me and give me a zero on the test anyway, I would feel like I was trapped in some sort of nightmare.  Fortunately, I never found myself in that predicament, but I can imagine the dread I would have if I ever were.  So I consider the possibility that the student is telling the truth when such a thing happens.  It is a disheartening realization that there are students who are dishonest about it, because that means I really can't trust students when they tell me that they didn't really cheat and whatever reasons I have for thinking they cheated are incorrect.

Trust is such an important thing to me.  Knowing that what someone tells me is true grants peace of mind.  I don't have to be paranoid that everything everyone says is likely a lie.  I don't have to second guess people or try to find their hidden meanings.  I live my life so that people can take my words at face value because I want to take other people's words at face value.  The way I see it, if I can't trust the words that you say to me, then there really isn't much point in communicating anyway because I have no way of knowing whether what you're telling me is true or false.

So it seems that some people play life as though it's a poker game.  Trying to see what they can get away with, how much they can bluff and when they can call other people's bluffs.  I feel that sometimes I'm at a disadvantage because it seems like such people have a useful skill that I lack: they can anticipate what other people want to hear.  When I play games like Apples to Apples (or, more recently, Cards Against Humanity), I'm not very good at winning.  I don't know what card to pick that will be the most likely for the judge to choose my card.  I just pic a card that I personally think is fitting or funny, and hope that they like mine best.  But it seems that some people are very good at this game.  They are good at knowing what card the judge would be most likely to pick and then play that card.

Of course the card game example is trivial.  I don't mind losing a game.  But there are real-life applications.  I don't often think about what impact my words will have on other people before I say them.  And when I do think about it, I'm often quite wrong.  I'll often expect people to react a certain way when I say something, but they react in a completely different way when I actually do say it.  It baffles me.  So I feel that I'm lacking this skill that some other people seem to have.

It's hard for me to admit my faults.  I don't like acknowledging that I have flaws.  It's painful and embarrassing.  Perhaps that's one reason why my student wouldn't admit that he cheated.  Perhaps he felt the same way.  He didn't want to admit that he had been dishonest.  He didn't want to admit that he had a flaw.  I don't know.  Maybe it was something else.  Maybe he thought his punishment would be more severe if he confessed.  Whatever the case may be, I know that I would be better able to help him if he were honest with me.  Perhaps one day he will learn.  Perhaps not.  I really can't say.

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