Why do people lie?

bush-cheneyWell, the simple answer to that is obviously because it gets them what they want, whether that be something positive, like a job they aren’t qualified for, or negative, like avoiding censure for something they did wrong. Lying can boost the self-esteem of those who think a lie makes them look good in the eyes of others, and frequent liars are typically concerned with face.

People become liars often for self-protection as children as Leon Seltzer explains well here: communication-the-universal-phobia All of us do it, but some people are more susceptible to the face-saving need for lying than others. Researcher Bella DePaulo has some bad news for us: the less frequent deep betrayals of trust… occur between people in intimate relationships. “You save your really big lies,” she says, “for the person that you’re closest to.” the-truth-about-lying

Lying is not always for malicious reasons, but it is the malicious reasons that interest me most. I can understand lying to protect someone’s feelings, like when you tell your Gran that you love the floral shirt she gave you for your birthday. But when a person decides to lie when they know that lie will cause another person harm, how do they protect themselves from the negative personal esteem that must come from such actions? Do they feel guilty? Most importantly, what can we do to protect ourselves from malicious lies intended to deceive us or hurt for the personal benefit of the liar? Is there a twitch or something that makes them instantly identifiable?

There is a ‘type’ of person more prone to lying: “In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, DePaulo and Deborah A. Kashy, Ph.D., of Texas A&M University, report that frequent liars tend to be manipulative and Machiavellian, not to mention overly concerned with the impression they make on others.” the-truth-about-lying Despite this, liars are still notoriously difficult to spot. Contrary to folk wisdom, liars come in all shapes and sizes and may have different tics or behaviours when they lie, or even none! The most consummate liars are adept at controlling any unnaturalness that might give away their deception. Like the character Jim Carey plays in the Liar, Liar movie, good liars can deceive us with a smile and we suspect nothing. The worst or most successful liars are the sociopaths who don’t feel any guilt so wont display the nervousness we would expect from a less-seasoned deceiver.

However, good liars may commonly give themselves away by their smug self-satisfaction at having got away with a lie: the post-lie smirk. So recognised is the post-lie smirk, that the voting public made much of the smirk of prospective Liberal party boss Peter Costello that may have crowned his failure to win the party leadership. According to a system developed by Paul Erkman wikipedia.org – Paul_Ekman, smirking is a sign of contempt for the gullibility of the person who has just been duped, just as a curled lip can indicate disgust for the person one is deceiving. Useful things to know when identifying malicious liars, but no guarantees.

However, many people do feel bad about deceiving others, which makes it a little easier for the rest of us. Some of the things liars do that give them away include raising the pitch of their voices, fidgeting, wringing hands, scratching, blinking, looking down. Some gestures may even be individual-specific, something that only a close friend or relative could notice. I once had a partner who would rub his hands like Lady Macbeth trying to rid her hands of blood when he was lying to me. Unfortunately I only realised this was the sign of his lying after I found out he was cheating on me! One should use caution when trying to identify liars by gestures, because there can be other reasons unrelated to a perceived lie, such as nervousness, fear or distraction by another thought process that can give one the impression of untruthfulness.

Malicious lying is basically a problem of maturity. People who continue to use other people by lying to them for their own personal gain lack the emotional maturity to understand or care about the hurt they cause those they deceive. As the adages says, “What a web we weave..” and “The truth can set you free” you do yourself psychological harm when you harbour secrets by omission or outright lying, you damage your internal sense of integrity and set back the development of responsibility for your actions that marks a mature adult human being. Honesty is not easy and does involve the risk of emotional hurt through rejection. But continued dishonesty creates a schism between the person we are and the person we appear to be to others which spells doom to authentic and close relationships with others.

By the same token, there’s no doubt that those who lie can become rich and successful in a capitalist society and such is part of the nature of competition. The conman cannot succeed without an unrepentant, indeed Machvellian, talent for deceiving others. For those that value personal money or power over interpersonal relationships, lying will always be a tool that the more guileless of us need to be aware of and protect ourselves from.

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