Pinocchio: Reflections on telling lies, group think and the process of growing up.
Updated: Mar 2
Geppetto washing Pinocchio (1996) Paula Rego.
‘Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive’. Marmion, Sir Walter Scott 1808.
Growing up I struggled with truth telling. I preferred fantasy and the stories I could create about how I wished my life was. I wanted to give people an image of my life as I imagined they preferred to hear and it didn't occur to me that my own experience would be enough. It took time for me to develop a more confident relationship with reality and to nurture my ability to speak plainly and directly. One particular story has become family lore - how when my mum was pregnant with her 6th child, I as a five year old, couldn't bear to hold the disappointment of saying the baby had not arrived yet, and so told my teacher that mum had given birth to a girl called Jane. A few days later my mum had a boy and called him Jonathan. Various confusing conversations between my parents and teachers ensued. I desperately tried to avoid the embarrassment and humiliation of being caught lying so just doubled down. Eventually to my mortification the whole thing became exposed. I felt searing shame even though the teachers were kind and my parents were gentle - everyone just thought it was funny and with adult eyes I see they understood my predicament. However I knew lying was wrong and this being caught only added to the pressure of wanting to be seen as nice, and left me even more desperate to escape into fantasy.
In adulthood I understand better everything has light and shadow. Lying is a frequent part of social interaction and has been examined extensively in psychological research. Although lying is often regarded as a nefarious act, it has also been described as a social lubricant. As psychologists we are trained to not entirely trust the narratives of adults who claim they would 'never' tell a lie. Whilst apparently there are a few prolific liars who are responsible for a major share of lies told, research suggests that most people lie approximately one to two times a day. Both philosophers and evolutionary psychologists have asserted that the capacity to lie is a talent human beings possess universally.
“By the time we are two or three, we are telling people what they want to hear—or what we think they want to hear." (Clancy Martin).
The most famous story that comes to my mind about lying is The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) by Italian writer Carlo Collodi of Florence, Tuscany. Pinocchio is a puppet who has been carved out of a piece of Pine by a grieving woodcarver named Geppetto in a Tuscan village. He dreams of becoming a real boy. Recently there have been two rather high-profile films about him. When Pinocchio tells a lie, his nose grows, making it impossible for him to hide his deception. While this may seem like a straightforward message about the importance of honesty, there are deeper implications about the role of lying and group think in our lives.
The structure of the story of Pinocchio follows that of the folktales of the rural poor who venture out into the world but are unprepared for what they find. At the time of the writing of the book, this was a serious problem, arising partly from the industrialization of Italy. Industrialization was creating a growing need for reliable labour in cities; the problem was exacerbated by similar and, more or less simultaneous, demands for labour in the industrialization of other countries. In 1871 there were 26.8 million Italians. Large-scale transatlantic emigration was just beginning; in 1888 alone more than 200,000 Italians went to the Americas in search of jobs, ten times as many as a decade previously. The most popular destinations were Argentina, Brazil, and the United States. More than a quarter of the emigrants were southerners, and the great exodus of European emigrants to both North and South America was just about to begin. Most people in Europe (nearly 70 percent in 1871) were illiterate and usually spoke only dialect.
The political message in the story is clear as the main lessons demanded of Pinocchio to be learnt are to work, be good, and study. And in the end, Pinocchio's willingness to provide for his father and devote himself to these things transforms him into a real boy with modern comforts.
Pinocchio can be seen as a metaphor for various human experiences including the mass migration of the rural community in the period of Industrialization.
Pinocchio is a boy not born from a woman's body, like every other child. Instead his shape is carved out by a man in a workshop, from a piece of wood. As such, he is not a biological child, he is a puppet. When he makes his first appearance, he is already at school age and beyond. All his important stages of foetal and infant development are skipped. Pinocchio has never felt womb warmth, he has never had the experience of being in our deepest human state of vulnerability. So he does not know what it is to be held, kissed, or coaxed by a parent in states of joy, rage, pain, bewilderment and play. He has not experienced growing into his body and growing into his social world, through orientation to nature, landscape and socialization of group attachments.
These physical and social environments of new children saturate through their bodies' archetypal architecture and give them an orientation to psychic existence. This physical experience of knowing a place in the world, knowing my place in the world is what gives us a deep sense of belonging. The best description of this belonging I know is that of the word - Hiraeth. It is an untranslatable Welsh word that describes a longing for a home, a place, or a feeling that no longer exists or never existed. It’s a homesickness for the places from your past you can’t return to or even those you’ve never been to. Hiraeth can also mean nostalgia for your past self, the people who are long gone, or the emotions you used to feel.
How do you become a boy if you didn't grow into one? Yet people around him demand he fit in.
Unsurprisingly, the first thing that Pinnochio does,to try and get by, is to tell lies.
"How do you know I am lying?" "Lies, my boy, are known in a moment. There are two kinds of lies, lies with short legs, and lies with long noses. Yours, just now, happen to have long noses."
Pinocchio, not knowing where to hide his shame, tried to escape from the room, but his nose had become so long that he could not get it out of the door, from “ Adventures of Pinocchio”.
This distinction in lies is interesting, and worth remembering. Lies that have short legs are those that cannot take you very far. The consequences of this type of lie are more likely to catch up you. My lie as a child was never going to last very long. I didn't have the cognitive ability to think ahead and understand it would never work. Lies that have long noses are those that are obvious to everyone except the person who told the lie. These are lies that distort how the observer sees the person. Lies with long noses, to be sustained, require the person observing you to not give you feedback. They also require help from others in their repair. In either case, according to the blue haired fairy, lies are bad because they result in painful consequences for the liar. This conclusion of the fairy is noteworthy, because most arguments against lying are made because lies are unfair or harmful to others.
Pinocchio reminds us that our bodies are archetypal structures that come to life through relationships. Archetypes connect us both to universal, recognizable truths but also offer symbolic imagery to facilitate understanding of a situation. He is recognizably a boy, yet we also know he is not really one at all. He is made of wood. The name Pinocchio is possibly derived from the rare Tuscan form pinocchio (“pine nut”) or constructed from pino (“pine tree, pine wood”) and occhio ("eye"). Interestingly, the pine tree used to make Pinocchio is another ancient symbol. Trees have their own pattern of growth and relating in the world that is different to human boys.
The tree as an archetype is a pattern of growth related to a part of nature that is more connected to the principle of survival, natural competition and the interconnectedness of nature. Trees are not easily uprooted and each sits within, as well as provides, ecosystems. A tree is a plant having a permanently woody main stem or trunk, ordinarily growing to a considerable height, and usually developing branches at some stance from the ground. Despite its huge variety in species a tree is understood as a tree in every continent.
We use the pattern of the tree's life to create imagery that teaches us something about the world and how to navigate it. People interact with trees differently than they do other humans. The symbol of the Tree has been found to represent physical and spiritual nourishment, transformation and liberation, union and fertility.
An example of how we use this symbol archetypally is found in the proverb “The axe forgets; the tree remembers.”— African proverb This is a Zimbabwean proverb from the Shona tribe, meaning that a person who harms another or borrows from someone will often forget, but the person who is harmed or borrowed from will always remember. Understanding the archetypes of the tree and the axe, is what allows this proverb to have so much depth of meaning.
We often associate trees with the feminine or Mother Nature. Trees are also often linked to families and recovery from trauma. Abused women in Greek mythology are frequently transformed into trees as a gift to help their recovery. A story we can use to help think about this is that of the Giving Tree by Shel Siverstein.
Another well known phrase is when "you can't see the wood for the trees". This type of activity is not quite lying but does imply someone is unable to see a bigger picture.
Not being able to see the wood for the trees is a phenomena found in the process of groupthink, that is linked to a developmental ability in group process. It takes a long time for a group to grow into maturity and be able to hold and tolerate multiple understandings and perspectives. A bit like a tree being cut, it can very quickly be destroyed and its resources used as a power source or as a structural support. In periods of social stress, groups tend to regress and each group member will push for everyone to be in agreement.
Interestingly another aspect of the story Pinocchio that is worth exploring is the role of groupthink in promoting and perpetuating untruths. In the story, Pinocchio is often tempted to lie by characters who have ulterior motives. He is told that lying will help him achieve his goals and that everyone does it. This message is a form of group think, where individuals conform to the behaviour and opinions of the group, rather than thinking critically for themselves. The survival of the group is felt to be more important than anything else.
The phenomenon of groupthink can have a profound impact on our behaviour and decision-making. When we are part of a group, we are often influenced by the opinions and behaviours of others, and we may feel pressure to conform to the group's norms, even if they are not aligned with our values. In this way, groupthink can contribute to the spread of lies and misinformation, as individuals may feel pressure to conform to the group's narrative, even if it is not based on the facts as they experience them. Instead we strive to look for material in our experience to validate the shared group understanding. This can be quite a painful process, but often comes with a huge sense of relief when we are able to dredge up an understanding that allows us to not have to challenge the group’s chosen narrative,
My doctoral thesis was on interprofessional collaboration in CAMHS services over risk - and what was shown is that much of poor risk management occurred around a pressure to avoid conflict. Often because it was felt there was already too much external attack on the group. Rather than understanding that each professional tribe was invited into the MDT because of their difference and not for their ability to comply. When risk is low and resource is high this ability to tolerate difference of opinion is sustainable. But under times of duress there becomes a group pressure for everyone to be aligned. People want to deal with the immediate risk and lose sight of the bigger picture.
In times of low resource and stress in a group, internal difference is sought out, identified, and then seen as an opportunity for ‘education’ into the right way of being - rather than an encouragement for all to wrestle with an alternate view. Group members become adept at speaking up for others - rather than themselves. Members become puppets. In group think we do not meet our human differences to wrestle, suffer and grieve, but rather as a knots in a narrative that must be smoothed out, and storied up so that we can pacify our anxiety, and tidy it up so that we do not have to relate to it. We cut the unwanted bits off. In the story of Pinnochio we are invited to ask, is Pinocchio a piece of wood, a puppet or a boy. The more we understand his differences and his intentions, the more we can relate to him and the more real he becomes.
Pinocchio's story provides a valuable lesson about the humanness of lying and some of the dangers of groupthink. While the story is often seen as a cautionary tale for children, its message is relevant for people of all ages. By examining the story's themes and applying them to our own lives, we can gain a better understanding of the impact of lying and the importance of critical thinking and individual responsibility.
Before reading Collodi, I was familiar only with Walt Disney’s version of the story, I had the idea that the moral of Pinocchio’s story was “The truth sets you free”: as long as you are lying, you are dancing on the strings of others, but once you are brave enough to speak your mind—rather than worry about what others would have you say and do—you can be authentic; you can be a real boy. I still think there is some merit to this view, and I imagine it must be part of what Disney had in mind. But the reason I prefer Collodi’s original, much longer version of the story is that he appears to moralize but in fact lets his hero behave very much as we expect a typical little boy will. Pinocchio is naughty, he lies, he breaks (well-intentioned, sincerely meant) promises, he gets into all sorts of difficulties—through hastiness, inexperience, and misjudgment. But he is nevertheless a hero in the end, he is goodhearted, he loves Geppetto, and the fairy nobly gives him his just reward, which is, after all, just to be an ordinary boy.
It is my feeling that as a profession we have a lot of growing up to do. Through hastiness, inexperience and misjudgment we inevitably make mistakes. In the end I think we must believe in each others goodheartedness - to be able to truly love the ugly messiness of our own and others humanity. In doing so we might then be able to bear honestly the responsibilities that come with love and life, power and privilege, and hold the mature attitude of gratitude, in the knowledge we all interconnected.