Lying pulls us down, for when we don't tell the truth, we're bowing to pressure of some sort, and we're no longer acting in a way that's natural to us--we're being forced by circumstance to do something that we wouldn't normally do.
Worse, that something is one of the things that we get upset at when people do it to us, so we start to see ourselves as hypocrites. We lose control of the situation, and we're now reacting instead of acting, and we're deceiving others who probably don't deserve to be deceived. We're harder on ourselves than we are on others, usually, and when we lie, we start to see ourselves in exaggerated terms, and we start to see the lie as much bigger than it actually is. Worse still, we start to focus on the lie, the action we took that was an aberration, instead of focusing on the more positive aspects of the world and people around us. Often we become obsessed until we come clean and admit the lie, apologize for it, and start the process of putting it in our past.
Once we start fearing being found out, there's no way that we can get the most out of life. We spend our time worrying about discovery and the inevitable confrontation that will expose us as people who are willing to lie, and who can't be trusted. Of course, most people won't judge us so harshly that they'll never trust us again, but when fear enters our minds, all things grow out of their realistic proportions. I just read an essay by a man who was remembering the time when he stole a pie as a child, then covered his tracks by lying. The effect on him was drastic, as he had not only the theft to deal with emotionally, but also the lying afterwards, and the fear of the theft--and the ensuing lies--being discovered.
I often hear people say (and I say it myself) that I'd much rather have someone tell me a painful truth than have someone lie to me, only to have me find out about the lie later. When we deal with children, we prefer to have them tell the truth and get in a bit of trouble than to lie and get in a lot of trouble--now for the original act and for the lie. This is because something happens in a relationship once someone lies to the other person--one person is now hiding something, and the other loses trust, one of the most important aspects of any relationship. The person who is lying is bringing dishonesty and suspicion and fear into the relationship, all extremely damaging elements. And, interestingly enough, one lie leads to another as the liar tries to cover his or her lie with more lies, once the other person starts to feel the suspicion. What happens to trust? The person being lied to usually wants to trust the other, and the liar wants to be trusted, but knows that he or she doesn't deserve the trust--it's a vicious circle from which there's no escape except telling the truth, a painful remedy that many people aren't willing to face--they'd rather have the relationship end than tell a truth that may harm them by exposing their actions and their dishonesty.
For my part, I learned long ago--the hard way--that it's much better to tell the truth from the very beginning, even if the results for me aren't all that positive. But I also try to decide on actions that won't put me in a position in which I'll have to lie to someone in the future. I know that telling the truth is widely regarded as honorable and just, and I have no fear of taking responsibility for my actions. I'd rather be slammed for being honest than be promoted as a result of dishonesty, for though in the latter case others may feel good about me, I'll feel horrible about myself. And how can I live life fully if I don't feel good about myself?
This resource provides some information about the art and science of lying.
Think about a time when you told a lie.
Why did you do it? How did you feel? What happened?
Whether we want to admit it or not, lying is a part of life. Each of us has told a lie or two, whether it was to:
- get out of trouble (“I didn’t do it.”)
- avoid hurting someone’s feelings (“You look great!”)
- get something we want (“I finished my homework, so I’m going to the movie.”)
Unfortunately, some people do it more than others. And they don’t just lie about little things, but about big things as well.
In the following sections, you will learn all about lying—what it is, why you do it, and how you can tell when someone is lying to you.
What is a lie?
- A false statement deliberately presented as being true. (“My room is clean.”)
- Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression. (“I’m so sorry you didn’t make the team.”)
Why do we lie?
Lying is considered by many experts to be a natural human tendency. In the same way that children learn to walk, talk, and cry, we also learn to lie at a very early age.
The primary reasons people of all ages lie is to avoid punishment or get something they want.
Fortunately, as we grow older, we become aware that lying can have many painful consequences. Over time, we learn that we can get away with some lies while we can’t get away with others.
Empathy—The Key to Lying
Lying is done through communication. As humans, we communicate in many different ways, both verbally (talking, sounds) and non-verbally (facial and body gestures).
Another important component of communication is the ability to empathize, or understand what another person might be thinking or feeling. Having empathy is necessary to lie, because you have to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings to be able to make them believe your lie.
For example, a friend asks you for help with her homework, but you know she’ll just end up talking about her problems. Because you understand that she values your friendship and don’t want to hurt her feelings, you might tell a lie like, “I’d really like to help you out, but I have chores to do at home.”
Animals, Plants, & Lying
Can animals lie? How about plants? Well, yes and no.
Like humans, animals are able to communicate both verbally and non-verbally. But scientists have found that only higher primates (gorillas and chimps) have the ability to empathize. Because their ability to communicate verbally is limited, gorillas and chimps don’t lie verbally.
And since plants do not communicate, they cannot actually “tell” lies. Both animals and plants do engage in a form of lying called deception, however. In order to survive in the wild, many animals and plants rely on camouflage or altering their appearances in order to deceive predators or attract prey.
Scientists have determined that most animals and plants are not aware that they are being deceptive.
Signs of conscious deception, however, have been found among primates. Studies have shown that chimpanzees both hide food from each other and also seek out food that has been hidden. This proves that the deception is conscious—that each chimp has the empathic ability to sense what the other might be thinking and doing.
Our ability to speak has increased our capacity for communication and, therefore, for lying as well.
Lying can make people distrust each other and can threaten the cooperation needed to maintain a healthy society.
Luckily, the painful consequences of being caught in a lie—having to face anger, rejection, humiliation, or shame from others—help keep lying to a minimum.
When a person lies, his or her body may undergo physical changes such as:
increased heartbeat stuttering
increased breathing sweating
higher vocal pitch irregular face/body movements
Other indicators that could indicate that someone is lying include:
avoiding eye contact fidgeting arms, hands, and fingers
reduced blinking mouth/face touching
Although many of these general “indicators” have been associated with lying, not all people who are lying exhibit them. Even more importantly, not all people who exhibit them are telling lies.
It’s Hard to Tell
Three decades of scientific studies support the conclusion that people have a difficult time telling whether or not someone is lying. It has been found that people can tell the difference between truths and lies only 55 percent of the time—just a little better than making random guesses.
Why is detecting liars so hard?
One view is that our tendency tobelieve others is stronger than our inclination to distrust them. We may be more likely to see the truth because having that tendency makes personal interactions more successful and contributes to social progress.
Interestingly, studies have shown that some people can tell the difference 70 percent of the time. Usually these are police officers and Secret Service agents who have to distinguish truth from falsehood on a daily basis. A few special people who can tell the difference 80 percent of the time have learned to pay close attention to nonverbal cues and changes in word usage.
To Catch a Liar
With the difficulty in determining who is lying and who is not, police and other law enforcement organizations have tried to find reliable scientific methods to detect liars. Here are some examples:
The Polygraph Test
This machine was first developed by the police in the 1930s to try to detect if suspected criminals were lying. The process involved attaching tubes, cuffs, and metal plates to the person’s body to measure changes in respiration and blood pressure. And though some experts have suggested that polygraphs today have an accuracy of at least 96 percent, others suggest that the nervousness and fear that a person experiences when hooked up to the machine produce symptoms similar to those of lying. Those people consider the results of the polygraph test to be unreliable.
Thermal imaging technology is based on the concept that, when a person is lying, blood flow increases around the eyes. First developed to identify terrorists at airports, the accuracy of the machine has been brought into question, since flying can make many people nervous and produce physical symptoms similar to those of lying.
Another recent lie-detecting technology, brain fingerprinting, involves putting a helmet with various electrodes on a person’s head to measure certain brain waves that show whether an alleged criminal is familiar with certain objects, like a gun used in a robbery. This technology, however, cannot distinguish between the criminal and someone who just observed the crime taking place.
Detecting Lies—Keep it Simple!
Even though people and machines are not very well-equipped to detect whether someone is lying, scientific experts suggest that focusing on three areas can help you improve your odds of detecting a lie:
If you are wondering if someone is lying, look for verbal changes like:
- more pauses
- slower speech
- elevated pitch
Also pay attention to what the person is saying, since people who are lying tend to give:
- fewer facts and details
- less information about times and places
Lies also are often told differently from normal speech:
- in a more structured way
- from beginning to end, chronologically
Watching a person’s face when he or she is talking can tell you a lot about whether the person is lying, since it is difficult to control facial expressions and the emotions behind them.
A few facial signs to watch for that may suggest that someone is lying:
- expressions that don’t match the words that are being said (saying “I love you” with an angry scowl)
- expressions that don’t match the timing of the words (saying “Wonderful!” and not smiling until a few seconds later)
Here are some other facial signs that a person might be lying:
- hiding emotions (showing no emotion)
- masking real emotions with false ones
- showing emotion when none is felt
Experts also recommend focusing on the eyes and forehead, which are harder areas of the face to control than the mouth and cheeks. It’s in these areas where honest emotion can be more easily detected.
When a person attempts to lie, he or she often feels stress about what to say and how to say it. The person also typically tries to hide his/her emotions on his/her face. As a result, the person does not have much awareness or control of the messages his or her body is sending.
This stress a person feels when having to lie can be seen through:
- nervous movements
- foot tapping
- deep breathing
- strong eye contact
- overly controlled movements
Remember that verbal, facial, and body signs are only suggestions that a person might be lying. Your intuition and ability to empathize are the best tools you have to use.
A final point to consider when thinking about lying: What is the truth? Is there such a thing as “absolute truth”?
One expert suggests that some people who lie a lot can actually come to believe that their lies are true (“true lies”). So a statement can be true for the person making it and false for other people and in reality.
How confusing is that?
As a result, it is often as hard to determine what is true and what is not. All we can do is be aware and keep trying to tell the difference.
ABC Online. Natural Born Liars. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/science/features/liars/default.htm.
Science News Online. Deception Detection, v. 166 (5).
The American Heritage Dictionary. (2000). New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.