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The Truth About Lying

To lie is human.

It is a mainstay of social behavior and interpersonal communication. Human’s have an ego which has an appetite so they lie to feed it at times.  Humans generally want to please others so they lie to avoid conflict or something unpleasant.  Human’s also are generally self-serving creatures so  they lie to get a desirable outcome for themselves. Humans also tend to be trusting so they can be lied to, often with little or no bad repercussions for the liar.  In other words, fudging the truth can at times be easy and somewhat rewarding.  

Lying is both a defensive and offensive psychologic tool.  Defensively we lie to protect our ego and offensively we deceive to manipulate others to get what we want.   Most lies are not too mentally taxing on our psyche and are “justified” as “okay” with the excuse of avoiding hurting someone’s feelings or no harm no foul.  “This shrimp scampi you made is delicious.” But the more mentally burdensome lie used to cover up something unethical can come with a significant emotional tax – GUILT.  “I could not steal your stuff someone else must have.”

Types of Lies

  • Lies of Commission is the quintessential lie where falsehoods are intentionally generated.  Basically a “flat out lie”. For example, lying on a resume to make yourself a more attractive candidate like saying you graduated from a prestigious college you never attended. 
  • Lies of Omission involve the intentional exclusion of important information.  Basically not telling the whole story to mislead or misrepresent the real facts or story. For example, forgetting to report side income to the IRS. 
  • Lies of Influence occurs when something unrelated is brought up to misdirect or to cover up the truth (a.k.a. the character lies.) For example, deflecting that you actually spread a rumor about someone by telling that person “you can’t think I would spread such a rumor.”

Does everyone lie?

Of course. Even when asked about how much we lie, we lie.  Surveys show that most people say they almost never lie but actually they are guilty about 7-10 times a day on average. Mostly minor fibs not to hurt others feelings or just to keep the social flow going.  However, there are those lies that are more conscientiously laborious.  These are the ones that come with guilt attached.   Brain images demonstrate that those guilty lies involve areas in the parietal lobe where complex cognition takes place and in the amygdala where emotions are felt and then linked in memory to thought. So the more thought out the lie, the more likely you get the sinking feeling of guilt attached to it, and more likely the guilt lingers in your memory – the guilty conscience. 

 Interestingly, like a lot of emotional responses regulated by the amygdala, the more it is experienced the less intense the response. In other words, the more one lies the easier it gets – less guilt and mental pain.  For instance, if you lie a little on your taxes one year you may worry about it but if nothing bad comes of it the easier and more likely you are to do it the next tax year. So lying without ramifications or even better with rewards becomes a reinforcement to lie, lie, lie.  

Fortunately, there are some checks on liars. 

First, lying is discouraged because humans don’t like to be lied to. Second, it is easier to tell the truth because it takes less cognitive effort most of the time. And when telling the truth is rewarded, it becomes a reinforcing loop as well.  Since most people value being told the truth a lot more than they like being lied to so the truthsayer is trusted, the occasional liar is forgiven but the compulsive liar is often held in contempt and scorned in society.

So why is there so much lying (and not just in politics)?

It is human nature to trust and society does not take well to confrontations. So as creatures of society we let the little lies pass and don’t make too much of the blatant lies.    We prefer to trust readily especially when it is something we want to believe and stay at a comfortable distance where it is safer and free from conflict especially when it does not hurt us too much or is something we want to believe in ourselves.  So we let it pass without much thought.In short, humans like to lie a little but I don’t think I really had to tell you that.  Did I?