In the time of widespread “fake news,” it’s easy to think of lying as bad and damaging. After all, parents and schools teach children honesty as part of moral upbringing. Acts of fraud, misdirection, and manipulation by politicians and corporations are also called out on the news under the banner of justice. One example is financier Bernard Madoff who ran a Ponzi scheme for years in the United States that stole almost $65 billion from thousands of investors.
History nevertheless offers examples of deception used for reasons beyond evil. One is the fictitious illness “Syndrome K,” invented by the Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Rome to shelter Jews during Nazi persecution.
Of course there are less serious examples of harmless deceit. Just think of stand-up comedians coming up with a bogus story for the sake of humor. Screenwriter David Misch recalls a talk where a critic quotes Louis C.K. to make a point on the authenticity of comedy: “I went to a bar the other night. Where isn’t important, because I’m lying.”
If deception isn’t necessarily malicious, what is it?
The Ubiquity of Lying
Dr. Timothy R. Levine, Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says in a National Geographic article by author Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “We all lie, but not all lies are the same. People lie and tell the truth to achieve a goal: ‘We lie if honesty won’t work’.”
Like the three instances above, people lie with different intentions. Bhattacharjee’s article summarizes these based on findings by researchers: self-promotion to take advantage, improve image, or make others laugh; self-protection to cover up a mistake or escape responsibility; impact to help others, uphold social rules, or cause harm; and no apparent reason, as in the case of pathological liars and people with unknown motives, even to oneself.
More surprising is the frequency of lying. According to a survey conducted in the United Kingdom by Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, most adults tell two important lies every day and that one-third of their conversations have some form of dishonesty. People also fail to detect four in five of these lies. The results further show that more than 80 percent have lied to gain employment, while over 60 percent have cheated on their partner at least once. Only eight percent claim never to have lied.
Ingrained in Humanity
Whether it’s a harmless fib or a full-blown fraud, deception takes a certain level of complex thinking. Naomi Stewart in an essay for online magazine I, Science suggests that lying comes naturally to organisms with higher brain functions, such as human beings, since it takes advanced neural processing to weave a false story and remember its details.
Psychologist Kang Lee from the University of Toronto observes this kind of cognitive complexity in children. In an experiment that asks children not to peek at a hidden toy while the experimenter is away, 30 percent of the two-year-old participants have lied, while the number increases to 50 percent among the three-year-olds and 80 percent among the eight-year-olds. Even how the kids have given themselves away shows the increasing sophistication of lying as age goes up. For instance, participants aged three and four simply say what the hidden toy is, while those who are six make an effort to invent an elaborate reason to explain why they know the answer.
The study gives insight to how lying is linked to cognitive development. This link has also led some researchers to believe that dishonesty is a product of evolution with the emergence of more sophisticated thinking and language. Unlike primitive primates that rely on strength to survive, human beings are empowered by bigger brains and language to seek other ways to get what they need, such as through trickery.
“Lying is so easy compared to other ways of gaining power,” says Sissela Bok, an ethicist at the Harvard University. “It’s much easier to lie in order to get somebody’s money or wealth than to hit them over the head or rob a bank.”
Catching a Liar
Still, some forms of deception are worth calling out, as in the case of Bernard Madoff. However, not many of us are adept at distinguishing lies from the truth, which may be the reason why fake news has gotten a strong foothold on social media.
A basic understanding of lying can help expose deceivers. In the television legal drama Bull, for instance, psychologist and trial science expert Dr. Jason Bull reveals the telltale signs of dishonesty, such as by how liars move their eyes or fiddle with their fingers when trying to cover up a secret. This way, his clients can become better prepared before they face jury trial.
Want to learn more about the signs of lying? Catch the last few episodes of the top-rated American drama Bull every Tuesday at 9:45PM, same day as the U.S., first and exclusive on Blue Ant Entertainment. Blue Ant Entertainment is available on SKYcable channels 53 (SD) and 196 (HD), SKYdirect channel 35, Destiny Cable channel 53, and Cablelink channels 37 (SD) and 313 (HD).
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