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To Lie is to Human: The Science of Lying
Do you remember the first time you told a lie? If I try to remember my first lie, it might have been in my early childhood. I remember lying to my mother that I had gone to study but in reality, I was playing with other kids outside. The odds are, you might have done the same in your childhood but in different circumstances. There’s nothing to be ashamed of or to feel guilty about it as lying is one of the most common attributes we humans have. The history of humankind is full of people who not only lie but use them to fool others and gain an advantage or to get out of a tricky situation. From people like Frank Abagnale (remember the film Catch Me if You Can?) who conned hundreds of people with his lies and charm to politicians like Richard Nixon or even Bill Clinton, who lied under oath! (an impeachable offence under the U.S law).
why do people lie?
Some of the first research to understand the phenomena of lying was done by Bella DePaulo (1996) and her colleagues. They found out from the study that out of all the 147 participants, almost all of them lied on an average two or three times a day. Some of these lies were small lies in order not to hurt someone’s feelings or some of were excuses in order to get out of an errand. But some also admitted to telling some serious lies like hiding an affair. Researchers have argued that the behaviour of lying must have originated shortly after the emergence of language. The realisation of the power to manipulate others without using physical force may have proven be to be one of the causal factors behind lying. Sissela Bok, in her book (1978), has argued that the act of lying is the easiest way of gaining power when compared with other ways. She says “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”.
I go back again to the example of lying in our childhood, when we lie for the first time. Bruno Vershcuere (2011) has argued that lying is an essential part of our developmental process like walking or talking. He argues that children learn to lie between the ages of two to five. Moreover, they lie the most when they are faced with questions of independence. To study the development of lying in children, Kang Lee (2013), along with his colleague in a study found out that lying is part of the overall development process of a child. According to this study the percentage among children for lying increases with age. Among two-year-olds, only 30% are caught lying but as the age increases the numbers also increases as among 3-year olds, the number shoots up to 50% and in the case of eight-year-olds, it is at a staggering 80%!
Researchers have also argued that kids also get better with lying as they age. In the case of the above experiment, two and three-year-olds after some probing told they peeked, albeit not knowing what was their transgression. But eight-year-olds, learned to hide their actions by giving a story or saying the complete opposite with conviction. Researchers have argued that the rise in lying skills depends on the child’s development of the ability to imagine himself/herself in other’s place.
But the question arises that are people, who lie more often, unique or different from those who don’t? Researchers Yaling Yang (2005) and her colleagues undertook just a study to investigate the mapping of the brain among different individuals. In the study, the researchers compared the brain scans of three different groups. One group had 12 people, having a history of repeated lying, the second with 16 people who were deemed to be having an anti-social personality disorder, and the third group with 21 people who were neither. The study found that the people who lied often had a greater connectivity within their brains, signifying that they are likely to come up with better stories, plans etc. Although, this could have also have happened because of years of habitual lying.
In another study, Nobuhito Abe and Joshua Greene (2014) performed scans on their subjects using fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and found that people who lied and were dishonest showed greater activation in a certain part of the brain which plays a key role in processing the idea of rewards. Green, while explaining the findings, argued that the more excited your reward system gets at the possibility of getting money – even in a perfectly honest context – the more likely you are to cheat or act in a dishonest way. Simply put, greed may lead you to lie!
The Paradox of Being Human
What is puzzling though if, which is being argued by research, the act of lying leads to better connectivity in the brains or it is a sign of early development of children or the thought of lying or being dishonest excites our reward system in our brains, then why don’t we do it more often. This is the same question that Dan Ariely finds interesting as he wants to understand why is it that people don’t lie more. In an experiment conducted on dishonesty, Ariely, in his ‘the dishonesty project’, gave volunteers simple math problems to solve and if they get answers right they would get paid for them. The volunteers were told to shred the sheet after the test and told to report how much they got correct. Most of the volunteers lied when they reported but what Ariely found interesting was that the people didn’t increase their levels of lying, even when the amount of money was increased. People stopped from lying all the way – even though they were given clear opportunities and incentives to do so. Ariely argues that the reason could be that people want to see in themselves as honest beings, which could be because the value that honesty has in the society. So, people might have internalised honesty as an integral value as a human being.
But researchers like Timothy Levine (2010) have argued that overall it is better to be truthful and honest as these two determine the implicit trust that we have in social relationships and public communication. If we lose faith in these then overall faith in the people would be destroyed and people would stop having social relationships. Overall, we get far more benefits from believing and occasional moments of getting fooled by lies or deceptions are just hiccups. Robert Feldman, however, argues that this belief actually helps the liars. He calls it the liar’s advantage. As people usually are not expecting lies as they are not searching for them in every form of conversation and this is often used by the liars.
In Conclusion – Main Reasons for Lying
After going through a brief survey of research, we can identify certain key reasons for lying. The first type of lie is what we call the ‘white lie’. It is the type of lie we say when we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or we want to protect someone from emotional harm. For e.g. if someone in your family has cancer but you don’t tell, say your grandmother to save her from the emotional toll that such a news may take. The second type of lie comes out of fear, i.e. when we are afraid of the consequence of telling a truth. Lying in our childhood to escape from a parent’s beating is easiest example to think about. The third type of lie is linked with greed, as research has shown, that we use lies at times to maximise our profits in our daily lives. Last but not the least, the fourth type of lie is similar to the previous one. It is when we exaggerate about things to a certain extent to the other person to project or inflate an image of a product, so that people end up accepting it without questioning. Salespersons are the prime example people who uses these lies. Similarly, politicians also use these lies in order to project a larger than life image. So, think and ask yourself two questions: How many times you lie in a day? Second, of the four types, which type of lie you use the most. And if you think you don’t like that much, the answer to the above two questions may surprise you. Till then, Happy Lying Everyone!
Abe, N., & Greene, J. (2014). Response to Anticipated Reward in the Nucleus Accumbens Predicts Behaviour in an Independent Test of Honesty. Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 34(32): 10564-10572.ext
Bok, S. (1978). Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage.
Depaulo, B. (1996). Lying in Everyday Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 70(5): 979-995.
Lee, K. (2013). Littler LIars: Development of Verbal Deception in Children. Child Development Perspect, Vol. 7: 91-96.
Levine, T. (2010). People Lie for a Reason: Three Experiments Documenting the Principle of Veracity. Communication Reserach Reports, Vol. 27(4): 271-285.
Verschuere, B. (2011). The Ease of Lying. Consciouness and Cognition, Vol. 20(3): 908-911.
Yang, Y. (2005). Prefrontal White Matter in Pathological Liars. British Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 187: 320-325.