“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
– Noël Coward (maybe)
Why do people lie?
Even the most virtuous of people lie. To say that you don’t, would be a lie in and of itself. Our world runs on dishonesty, with the corner stones of our cultures based on half-truths and deceit. Now before you consider this pessimistic and jaded, watch the movie The Invention of Lying and consider a world where there is zero lying. It’s comically alien, and completely counterintuitive to how we as humans interact. So if we can dispel the idea that lying is only done by the “bad” people of the world, let’s figure out–why do people lie?
Rational Choice Theory
Breaking down something as intrinsic and ineffable as dishonesty, ironically, requires some hard truths. We need to see the foundations of motive, to see how it translates to everyday life. This is where the Rational Choice Theory can help us out. Adapted to criminology by Derek Cornish and Ronald Clarke, it was derived as a tool to assess the thought process of crime, and it can help us determine the various motives for a person to bend the truth. It believes that people become motivated to fulfill certain needs such as:
According to the theory, these needs can be met through crime and a weighing of options and outcomes. If we consider lying to be a the everyday persons “crime” then maybe we can adapt the same motives.
Once we look at these tenants of basic needs, it becomes overwhelmingly obvious what were are looking to achieve by lying. Lying on your resume for that new job (money, status), fudging your Tinder profile height or weight (sex), claiming your child floated away in a balloon, no seriously this happened (excitement), or any possible derivation of alternate facts that could ever exist.
This leads us to implement another scientific method, the Fudge Factor. Used in math as a filler to justify certain theories (such as dark matter), we use small lies as a ‘fudge factor’ to meet expectations we have set for ourselves. These small mistruths are made to make ‘whole’ our self image, especially ones considering our morality and need to be ‘good’ people.
So now that we know why we are lying–how are we lying?
The Signs of a Liar
I lied. There are no true signs of a liar.
Well, no true signs for a good liar. Because, as stated above, lies come in all shapes and sizes. Polygraph tests are widely considered to be inaccurate, to the effect that in many states they aren’t even admissible in a court of law. They measure automatic physical reactions such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and skin conductivity. But unfortunately, although these factors can be empirically measured, it doesn’t necessarily indicate dishonesty.
To add to the problematic nature of lying, as humans, we are really bad at detecting lies. Nearly 60% of people can’t go 10 minutes without lying, with an average of 3 lies being told in a short conversation.
Now if you are thinking to yourself, “That can’t be true! There is no way people lie that much!” Congratulations, you’re bad at detecting lies.
There are a many different “ways” to supposedly detect a liar. Whether it’s where their eyes are looking, what their body language shows, or the verbiage that they use, many people will try to convince you that there are sure fire signs that someone is lying. There are even CIA agents promising ways to correctly detect dishonesty.
The hard and honest truth of the matter is that you will be lied to. Often. And you probably won’t be the wiser.
The Extremes of Lying
Most of us lie, it’s an inevitable part of human existence. But with any personality flaw, there are always extreme cases.
Pathological lying, or Pseudologia Fantastica, is a form of compulsive and persistent lying where the person is either aware of their lies, or actually believes their statements to be true. The main difference between this and normal lies is the perceived intent.
Where as normal lies are to fulfill a certain need, pathological lying tends to take on a more fantastical intent. The person adopts these fantasies of mistruths and eventually is living a proverbial alternate reality.
Although there are some theories that certain people are predisposed to lying, due to specific brain developments, it is officially listed as a psychological condition. With any mental health issue, the details and causes of something such as pathological lying are hotly debated.
How to Handle Liars
The overwhelming reality is that lying will never go away.
Oddly the silver lining is that you are also part of the problem, because everyone one of us is a liar to some extent. Understanding that dishonesty and mistruths are just a part of the human coping mechanism, and we will all struggle to deal with our own reasons to distort the facts.
Solidarity in dishonesty.