We say it’s wrong. We use euphemistic terms like “white lie” or “fibbing” to ease our guilt. We superstitiously cross our fingers behind our backs, as if to somehow suspend the rules and judge ourselves on the right side of communicative fair play.
And, oh, the tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive. Like that line? I made it up myself. Just now. Honest.
If lying creates such headaches, then why do we do it? Because, let’s face it, we just can’t seem to help ourselves. It turns out that where lying is concerned, the cards are stacked against us, both by behavioral conditioning as well as by cognitive evolutionary biology.
Behavior first. Who among us doesn’t love the thrill of a crap shoot? Especially when the stakes are high. Win or lose, all or nothing. We roll the dice and reap our reward – sometimes. If we win, more often than not, we roll again. And if we lose – you guessed it – we roll again anyway most of the time.
That’s because a crap game keeps us almost irresistibly hooked by its very nature – and by ours. Payoffs are unpredictable, delivered on what is known as a variable schedule of reward. Precisely the kind of schedule that most strongly maintains any learned behavior.
Lying works the same way.
We never know whether any given lie is going to pay off. It’s like Forrest Gump’s mama always says about boxes of chocolates: “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Not only that, but lying has another form of variability built into it as well – a variable magnitude of reinforcement – because when we lie, the stakes we are playing for vary as well. And widely so.
Lying can bail us out of awkward situations. Spare the feelings of others. Preserve or strengthen alliances. Enhance social standing. Keep us out of trouble. Even save our lives.
Which brings us to the evolutionary biology of cognition because lying is, in fact, a valuable tool in the survival kit of any social species. Just ask Koko, the sign language-speaking gorilla, who once tore a kitchen sink out of a wall.
Oops. Landlord’s gonna hate that.
To get out from under, Koko metaphorically threw her pet kitten under the bus, slyly signing to questioning trainers the explanation, “Cat did it.”
Koko’s trainers didn’t buy it. Go figure.
And that, of course, is one of the problems with lying. Getting good at it takes practice. Lucky for us, we get an early start.
Studies have shown that human children begin practicing deception as early as six months of age through such attention-getting gambits as fake crying or laughter. But we tend to only get really good at lying – that is, at lying convincingly – after another four years of studious practice.
Lots goes on in those four years.
Outrageous, unbelievable lies gradually go by the wayside as children learn what kinds of lies work and when. Observation and practice are required. So too, it turns out, is a normally functioning prefrontal brain lobe, as studies of deception-challenged Parkinson’s patients have shown in recent years.
Interestingly, primate species aren’t alone when it comes to braininess sufficient for mastering the art of the bluff. Killdeer, a medium-sized shorebird that nests in shallow depressions on the ground, are masters of deception.
To protect eggs from predators, adult killdeer fake injuries by dropping one wing to the ground and dragging it convincingly along in order to lure hungry foxes and the like away from a threatened nest. When the fox is far enough from the eggs, the killdeer springs into the air unharmed – giving new meaning to the term lunch on the fly.
Unlike Koko, some non-human liars even manage to give us bipedal folk a real run for our money, as I learned while training dolphins for the U.S. Navy.
Military dolphins are trained to detect submerged mines as well as enemy divers. Either task requires the animals to patrol beneath the surface well away from the prying eyes of their trainers, and then report back. Threat absent or threat present. And guess what? Sometimes, the dolphins lie.
By the time military dolphins are fleet-active and ready to be of assistance in combat operations, their lying days are generally well behind them, thanks to careful positive reinforcement training by their human handlers.
But early in the course of a dolphin’s detection training, the animal often develops a bias toward reporting the presence, rather than absence, of a target. Only natural since those responses earn heavy fish rewards while the dolphin is still learning that finding targets is worth its while.
At first, every correct positive response – target present – is heavily reinforced. A fixed schedule of reward, the most effective schedule to promote the learning of a new behavior.
Once the dolphin has learned its task, trainers turn the dolphin’s efforts into a crap shoot by switching from a fixed schedule of reward to a variable one.
Sometimes, correctly reporting the absence of a target earns just as much reward as correctly reporting a target’s presence. Sometimes not. Sometimes a flood of fish snacks is involved when payoff time comes around, at other times only a trickle.
Like Forrest’s mama always says, “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
And so from deception comes reliability – at least in dolphins. Most of us humans, though, bear out the veracity of Mark Twain’s statement that people are never more truthful than when acknowledging ourselves as liars
There’s a scene in the movie Something’s Gotta Give that simply and succinctly captures one reality about the truth. After catching the man she loves on a date with another woman, Diane Keaton is chased out of the restaurant by a guilty and distraught Jack Nicholson. When he finally stops her, he pleads,
“I have never lied to you, I have always told you some version of the truth.” She replies, “The truth doesn’t have versions, okay?” And that’s the truth. The truth may have many sides to it. It may be complicated or hard to understand, but it exists… in one version. Yet, most of us have trouble with the truth.
We may not be outright liars, but we certainly shade the truth to make it fit more comfortably into our lives—to keep it from disrupting anything from our careers to our relationships to our afternoons.
In her research, Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., found that people lie in one in five of their daily interactions. Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting, claims in her TED Talk that we’re lied to between 10 and 200 times a day. It’s important to consider:
How honest is the world we’ve created around ourselves? How often do we ourselves tell lies? And, on the flip side, do we intimidate others in ways that might encourage them to shade the truth?
It’s common for people to only say the parts of the truth that they feel are acceptable or that they think people want to hear, leaving the full truth hidden away. They may lie by omission or tell “little white lies” that paint a very different picture of reality. It’s no surprise that these lies don’t just hurt relationships, they can outright destroy them
. Even lies told in the name of protecting others can leave you feeling pretty bad about yourself, because you don’t feel like an authentic, strong individual when you aren’t being honest. Here are some examples of the many ways people lie and how these lies hurt them in all areas of their lives.
Controlling a Response: When you talk to a close friend about an interaction with a co-worker or lover, do you only tell your side of the story? Do you leave out a small but significant detail about something you brought to the table? Do you rephrase the less desirable words you said in the moment?
Think about how these subtle changes may influence your friend’s attitude and response. Are you just getting your friend to say what you want to hear? In the end, how authentic is their response if you strategically manipulated the outcome?
When you control a response by shading the truth, you create an alternate, agreed upon reality between you and another person. You then get advice that may be based on faulty information. Plus, you deny yourself the value and integrity that another person’s true opinions might have awarded you.
Lying by Omission: Ever complained to someone that you aren’t losing weight without mentioning the Grande Frappuccino you downed as an afternoon snack? Everyone has times when they leave out less desirable details. Sometimes you do this to be sensitive or to spare a person’s feelings, but sometimes those details matter, and you know it. For example,
if your partner asks what you did that day, you may not mention that you wound up running into an ex and having lunch. Maybe you try to conceal an ongoing flirtation with a co-worker. These may not feel like acts of deception to you, but imagine how your partner would see them.
Whether there’s nothing to hide or something real you’d rather they not know about, leaving out significant facts will make you feel shady and create a hotbed for further deceptions. On the other hand, creating an environment where you can be open about these things will promote a feeling of mutual trust and honest communication.
Exaggerations: People’s insecurities about themselves may lead them to try to preserve a certain image of themselves, and they may experience a need for approval from others. However, when you exaggerate or don’t represent yourself honestly, you are left feeling like a fraud, which further hurts your self-esteem.
There’s a fine line between highlighting your attributes and completely inflating your abilities. At work, you may promise to finish a task you know you won’t be able to complete on time. You may exaggerate to a boss when it comes to your progress or skill level. Doing this will lead to trouble when, most likely, your actions will fail to match your words
At times, you may lie to compensate for guilt. Parents often do this with their children, missing a soccer game, for instance, then promising they’ll show up at every game for the rest of the season—only to disappoint again soon after. It’s hard to hide a broken promise, a missed meeting or a poor performance. Exaggerating deems you untrustworthy. Your words start to mean a lot less when the reality doesn’t match up. Plus, you may never believe that you’re being chosen or cared about for who you really are.
Self-Protection: Too often, people are coached by an inner critic to not express directly what they want or feel toward other people. You may have a guard up that tells you not to be too vulnerable. You may downplay your emotions or act like you don’t care, because you don’t want to feel or look like a fool. But defending yourself with deceptions or false portrayals of who you are will drive you further from your goals and will likely prevent you from getting what you want in life.
Gossip or Covert Communication: Gossip is an epidemic. It’s in every household, office space and coffee house. It’s a booming industry taking over our media. The biggest problem with talking about someone behind their back is that you may flat out deny these observations when face-to-face with that person. You can see how this can be harmful to your relationships. A true friend or loved one should be someone you can talk openly with, someone to whom you can offer feedback and welcome the same in return.
Another problem is that gossip breeds cynicism and destroys compassion. It’s a nasty way of indirectly dealing with real observations or competitive feelings. When you favor direct communication over gossip, you become a more genuine, compassionate, not to mention appealing, person to be around.
Some people believe you need lies to survive in a relationship. I would argue that this is untrue. Misleading a person distorts their reality and makes them feel crazy, which is one of the most unethical things you can do to another person. So what can you do to be more honest? You can begin by being honest with yourself.
First off, you can stop listening to your “critical inner voice.” Shading the truth often comes from listening to an inner coach that’s not on your side, that instructs you to self-protect by telling you things like you can only be accepted if you say the right thing or don’t really reveal yourself. In relation to your boss, it may tell you,
“You’ve been messing up lately so make your boss think you solved this problem without the help of your co-workers.” With your spouse, it may say, “Don’t tell her you forgot her birthday; it will only lead to a fight.” In relation to a competitor, it may advise you, “Don’t let him know you think he’s talented.
Don’t let your guard down; he’ll just use the truth to hurt you.” By getting to know this inner critic, you can separate it from your real point of view and act against it.
Next, you can take chances on the people you care about by being a lot more honest and direct with them. You can find healthy and considerate ways to express yourself and to be sensitive to the other person’s sense of reality.
The truth may not always be easy to hear, but in the long term, you will earn a lot more trust and respect from the people whose opinion you value the most.
When it comes to the truth, it’s important to think about whether you want people to trust you. Do you value integrity and want your words to be reflected in your actions? If you commit to these attributes on a behavioral level, you’ll be better able to gain trust and live your life with honest, open communication.
This world may not be perfect, nor the truth always easy to take, but you can find peace and freedom in the security of knowing that the world you’ve created around you is as real as it gets.