The Liar in Your Life
This much we know is true: Most of us are such habitual fibbers that we’re no longer even conscious of our little fictions—or just how many we tell. Here’s why.
BY MICHELLE BURFORD | AOL HEALTHY LIVING | OCTOBER 2009
On average, people tell three lies every 10 minutes—from “I was just about to call you” and “You’ve lost weight!” to “Your secret is safe with me” and “I love you, too.” Think this claim is a bit of an exaggeration? University of Massachusetts psychology professor Robert Feldman, Ph.D., has spent the last 25 years proving it.
In his book entitled The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships, Feldmam presents evidence on why we lie, just how often we stretch the truth, and the costs and benefits that come with such fibbing—whether it’s the so-called “little white lie”, a Madoff-style whopper, or something in between. “The most surprising finding of my research is how ubiquitous lying is,” says Feldmam. “It occurs at a rate far greater than I ever expected to find. In fact, lying is so frequent that we don’t even register that it’s happening.”
Lying also begins early: Feldman says that we learn to weave these tangled webs during toddlerhood, at around age 2 or 3. Then the older children get, the more sophisticated their lies become. In a sense, they’re training for survival in the adult world, since Feldman’s research shows that popular, socially successful people tend to be good liars. Yet even with the social advantages that come with fudging, Feldman contends that all lies exact a toll—on both the person who delivers the fiction and the one who is duped by it.
Michelle Burford: Why do we lie?
Dr. Robert Feldman: We lie because it works. And it works because other people want to hear lies about themselves—that they’re looking good or that we agree with them. In some cases, we lie because it gives us an advantage over others—we lie in order to sell things, for instance, or to convince people of what we want them to believe. There are a lot of reasons, but the bottom line is that lying is a social tactic that we use to get what we want. It’s an effective means of organizing our social interactions.
Have humans evolved as liars because some lying is necessary for survival?
Though we certainly learn to lie as we grow up, lying also has evolutionary roots. You can look throughout the non-human animal kingdom and see that animals lie in simple ways, like through camouflage. They also lie in more intricate ways: A firefly emits a signal to attract fireflies and other species, and the one that’s attracted is eaten in the end! Animals with more sophisticated cognitive levels, like chimps and apes, use all sorts of deception. It’s an effective means for survival.
If lying gives us a social advantage, what’s so great about telling the truth?
Apart from the moral question that I won’t get into, lying as a tactic often backfires. If a relationship begins with a lie—and my research has shown that people lie, on average, three times within the first 10 minutes of getting to know each other— the connection is built on falsehood. From there, the lies can snowball, leading to larger and larger lies. Dishonesty leads to a kind of inauthenticity—and I think most of us want more authentic relationships. We want to be honest with others, and we want to know where we stand with them. If we’re constantly being lied to, we have a false impression of what the relationship is all about. And in some ways, we never really understand who we are as people, because we get social feedback from others about what our capabilities are—”You’re doing a great job!” It’s not necessarily true, so we can never really assess ourselves accurately.
What kinds of lies do we most commonly tell?
When we lie to other people, we’re usually trying to make them feel good about themselves—”I agree with you” or “That’s a wonderful new tie.” We also lie to make the conversation go more smoothly. So when someone mentions a restaurant or a book, you say, “Yes, I’ve been there” or “I’ve read that.” Or you say you liked a movie when you really didn’t.
Then there are the self-oriented lies. To make ourselves look better and to puff ourselves up, we claim “I’ve traveled to Europe” or “I was in the National Honor Society in high school.” Most of us think that we’re above average, and we lie to reinforce our belief that we really are smarter, more capable, a better driver, you name it. This inflated view of ourselves is basically what allows us to get through the day. It’s a mechanism we use to enhance and protect our self-image.
You say that it’s nearly impossible to spot a liar. Aren’t there telltale signs?
There may be signs, but they’re different from one person to another. Also, the same nonverbal behaviors that could indicate that someone is lying can also indicate a host of other things. I might avert my eyes if I’m being deceptive, for instance, but I might also just be anxious, upset, or angry. The bottom line is that we’re just not very good at detecting other people’s deception. In fact, FBI officers, police detectives, and psychologists are only correct at determining whether someone is being truthful about 47 percent of the time! All the research shows that we might as well just flip a coin, because that would be more accurate than guessing whether someone is lying. Even polygraphs don’t work very well. The data show that polygraphs make lots of errors for the same reasons that non-verbal behaviors aren’t accurately readable. A polygraph test measures respiration rate, heart beat, and a number of other physiological indices—all of which can occur for any number of reasons. Polygraphs are used all over the place in law enforcement and government, but the National Academy of Sciences conducted a very comprehensive study in which it was determined that polygraphs just aren’t effective.
How can we best deal with deception among our friends and family?
We need to seek the truth from other people. If you ask someone, “Am I putting on weight?” he or she will most likely say, “No, you look great.” But if you say “Am I putting on weight? It’s really important for me to know the truth,” you’re more likely to get an honest and informative answer. And when your intuition is telling you that someone is lying, you need to find ways to verify that intuition—either by directly asking the person, or in some independent way.
You’ve written that even little white lies exact a cost. What’s the cost?
All lies are not created equal: White lies take a small toll, while bigger lies can have a major impact on a relationship. There’s a continuum of lies, and at some point along that continuum, lies become very damaging. But even when you tell a “small” lie, there is a cost. First of all, you set up a dishonest relationship. Second, that one small lie often turns into a larger one. And once you lie to someone and get away with it, it makes it easier to lie to that person over and over again. There’s also a cost to the person who receives the lie, because the person doesn’t have a sense of how he or she is really perceived. For example, you might tell a friend, “You look terrific!” But maybe she doesn’t look so terrific. Maybe she has food stuck in her teeth.
When it comes to lying, is there a gender divide?
There’s really no difference in the number of lies men and women tell, but there is a difference in the kinds of lies. Women are more likely to lie about things that make the person they’re talking to feel good or to make the social situation run more smoothly—”Yes, I agree with you,” or “You’re right.” Men are more likely to lie in order to make themselves look better—”I accomplished this” or “I was in a rock band.” Their lies are often self-aggrandizing. This is consistent with our gender socialization.
If most of us lie so much, then why do we assume others are truthful?
We lie an awful lot, but we’re usually not even aware of the lies. Most of us think that we’re very honest—so we assume that others are honest as well. Also, believing that others are telling the truth is just simpler. It takes a lot of cognitive effort to constantly think about whether people are lying.
In my research, I videotaped people during a 10-minute conversation, and then I asked them to watch themselves and indicate every time they said something that wasn’t accurate. Before watching the video, most people would say, “I never deviated from the truth.” But it turns out that people almost always found that they hadn’t been totally truthful! As we go through our daily life, we just don’t pay attention to the lies we tell. So I often challenge people to monitor what they say for one full day.
You’ve written that the biggest liar in one’s life might be the person in the mirror. How can we overcome our tendency to lie—and why should we?
We all lie. So to some extent, the liar in everyone’s life is in the mirror! I think we have to take an honest, clear-eyed look at ourselves. Part of the problem is that most of us don’t recognize that we’re lying to ourselves—but once we do, we should ask ourselves, “What am I really good at? What are my strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities?” It’s a useful exercise in understanding yourself better, and that allows you to have more honest interactions with other people. If you do this, you’ll end up having a much more authentic life.