Reflections on the psychology of lying

LanceArmstrong_620_011513I’ve always found it hard to understand how there are people who can look you in the eyes, never blink, and spin the biggest lie.  Of all the kinds of deceit, lying is probably its most common form.  My mind boggles at some of the big names across the years, not surprisingly, political:  Congressman Dan Rostenkowski; Washington mayor Marion Barry; and then there’s Bill Clinton (“I did not have sex with that woman”).

Lately, icons from the sports world have swollen their numbers, though like most liars, they’re often teflon coated when it comes to making the allegations stick. Think Bonds, Clemens, McGuire.  And now there’s Lance Armstrong and a confession–of a sort.

I probably don’t need to tell you that lying is also endemic to the business community.  It’s estimated that the average consumer is exposed to up to 200 lies daily via advertising.

But let’s not be self-righteous.  The truth is we all lie, so maybe our outrage is simply projection rather than seeing ourselves in the mirror.  Psychology Today (May 1, 1997) cites the 1996 study of lying  by University of Virginia psychologist Bella DePaulo, who found “most people lie once or twice a day.”

Lying sometimes comes with the territory, say law, politics, car sales.

Sometimes it may even seem the moral thing to do. Should a doctor tell every terminal patient his/her prognosis?

Sometimes lying may seem the only way to avoid being punished for telling the truth.  Should you tell your boss you were late because you got stuck in traffic rather than the truth you overslept?

Sometimes it may be wiser to tell your wife you like her new dress or hair-do than blurt out, “What were you thinking?

From another vantage point, lying can often be viewed as an ego prop for those with low self-esteem to boost themselves in the eyes of their beholders. The bigger the fish story, the better the payoff in admiration.

Lying is generally motivated by a desire to achieve a goal or to avoid responsibility for a behavior, e.g., overspending, drug addiction, etc.. There is, however, the  compulsive liar who does so inversely related to any goal.  Such behavior hints at a pyschiatric disorder, requiring treatment.  This also gets us into the criminal mind of the sociopath who can lie and even kill without remorse.  I think of Susan Smith (1994) who drowned her children, but initially claimed a black man had done it.

While granting that lying is an intrinsic human behavior, I still draw the line between the Lance Armstrongs who lie to mask their wrongdoing such as wholesale cheating or abuse of power and everyday Johns and Janes who lie to cover their embarrassment, or to prevent friction, or to opt for kindness.

What really arouses my disgust is when these self-serving schemers repeat their lies endlessly.  We had a decade of this in Armstrong’s case.

Ironically, we often reward our consummate liars. Though they didn’t make it into baseball’s Hall of Fame this year, Bonds and Clemens were candidates and drew over a third of the votes.  We also have two recently elected senators, one of whom falsely claimed service in Vietnam repeatedly; the other, to claims of Native American ancestry, presumably to take advantage of affirmative action. In reality, those who vote for such people share the same bottomline rationale of the end justifies the means.

The worst lies, the ones that grieve us and erode our trust, occur when we’re deceived by those we’ve invested our emotions in most, our family and friends. The medieval poet Dante assigned such people to hell’s deepest circle in The Inferno to keep company with the likes of Judas.

Liars are hard to detect because they ape sincerity, empowering their ability to manipulate the rest of us who want deeply to believe we’re being told the truth. This is why polygraphs aren’t always accurate, as they can’t readily filter out the feigner of sincerity.

Some have written in depth on the refined art of lying and strategies for its detection, the best of these being Paul Ekman’s classic 2009 book, Telling Lies:  Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage.  You’ll find his take on body language fascinating, although I’m dubious about this since body language can also be feigned.   Nonetheless, as an expert on emotions, he brings the closest thing to science on the subject, though he confesses the frequent difficulty, even then, of spotting the skilled liar.  Our best defense, in my own view, borrows from Reagan’s maxim:  “Trust and verify.”

We do know we resent people like Lance Armstrong, perhaps because he and others remind us of our own vulnerability to manipulation and the hurt we’ve experienced when our trust is violated

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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