Opinion

An honest guide to why we lie

Society would break down if we only told the truth, writes Ian Leslie

04 August 2017 - 06:45 By Ian Leslie
YOUR PANTS ARE ON FIRE Truth be told, we're all flaming liars   Picture: iStock
YOUR PANTS ARE ON FIRE Truth be told, we're all flaming liars Picture: iStock

Let's be honest: you are a natural born liar. So am I. Whether we tell little white lies to spare another's feelings, or whopping great pathological fibs, we can't escape the inherent human tendency for fibbing. The only question is: what kind of liar are you?

Very few people actually enjoy lying. Indeed, "liar" is one of the most damaging insults. But that doesn't mean we don't lie.

Psychologist Bella de Paulo found that, on average, people tell 1.5 untruths a day. And, according to a 2002 study by the University of Massachusetts, 60% of adults can't have a 10-minute conversation without telling at least one lie.

Facebook and Twitter have multiplied our opportunities to tell lies and made it much easier for them to spread; these days, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has even woken up.

Almost as soon as children learn to talk, they use words to deceive.

It is no coincidence that Donald Trump is both a compulsive Twitter user and a compulsive liar. Yet we cannot blame social media; it merely amplifies our human predisposition to stray from the truth.

Most of us lie by saying "I'm fine" when we are actually feeling miserable. We lie when we coo "What a beautiful baby!" while inwardly marvelling at its resemblance to an alien life form.

We have all simulated anger, sadness, or delight to fit with the expectations of others. We have exaggerated our accomplishments during job interviews. Some of us have even said "I love you" when we don't mean it.

Almost as soon as children learn to talk, they use words to deceive. They start telling simple lies between the ages of two and three, before moving to more sophisticated untruths between three and four.

For the most part, children and adults tell "little white lies" - fairly harmless everyday fibs designed to spare feelings. These are what keep the wheels of our society turning. The paradox is that society would break down if we couldn't rely on most people to tell the truth, most of the time - yet it would also break down if we only ever told the truth. There would be fights on street corners. Families would be torn apart. There is good reason to give these little white liars a free pass.

The paradox is that society would break down if we couldn't rely on most people to tell the truth, most of the time.

There are other types of liar who we don't forgive so easily. We give a hard time to dissemblers; experts at twisting words, judiciously omitting information, creating ambiguity and crafting deniability. Certain jobs seem to demand this skill: estate agents, lawyers and politicians all rely on it.

Even less defensible are compulsive liars, who constantly regale people with stories that plainly aren't true. They have become addicted to self-glorifying fibs because they are deeply insecure. They get a kick purely out of telling a lie. They usually hurt nobody but themselves - unless they end up in positions of real power.

Pathological liars (sometimes called psychopathic liars) are colder and more calculating. They lie with specific, self-serving goals. They can be charming and credible, and wreak great damage on their victims. It is these liars who grab the headlines; think financial fraudster Bernie Madoff.

Studies have revealed that psychopaths have low activity in the emotional parts of their brains - and thus little or no empathy for the effect their lies have on others. Pathological liars have no compunction whatsoever about fibbing, making them particularly dangerous.

We might all lie, but at least the majority of us have the grace to feel a little bit bad about it, even when it comes from a good place. So next time you catch yourself telling a tall story or throwaway fib, ask yourself what sort of liar you are.

Honestly? The answer might surprise you.

  • Little white liar. Someone who tells fibs in everyday work and social situations to make life easier. Your lies are broadly harmless. You say "Thanks for the lovely present" when you really don't like it.
  • Dissembler. Rather than outright lies, a dissembler avoids the truth, manipulating information. Your lies are to dodge uncomfortable situations, appear more likeable or tell people what they want to hear.
  • Compulsive liar. You can't help yourself; something in you compels you to fib. Your lies are showy and extravagant. You'll even lie about something you know can be easily checked.
  • Pathological liar. You are shrewd, inventive and lack empathy, lying to achieve a selfish goal. Your lies will catch up with you in the end.

- The Daily Telegraph

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