Mind Matters — Who Lies?

Do you lie? Have you ever lied? You lie if you say you never have. Everyone, even a toddler, has lied sometime, somewhere. Our ability to lie goes hand in hand with our wanting to trust others. “Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies,” says Yudhijit Bhattacharjee (“Why We Lie,” National Geographic, June, 2017).

Some people lie to deflect from their own bad behavior, either blaming someone else or making up excuses. We may lie to ourselves or to others by rationalizing, which is a great way to dodge chores: “Oh, I didn’t know where to put that … so I left it in the car!”

People also lie as an inflation of themselves: the grandiosity of making oneself bigger and better than anyone else.

Lying is manipulation. Yet there may be times that it is innocuous or may even save your life. I remember the prospective boyfriend in college who wanted to win me over by saying that he read the liberal Catholic magazines (the ones he knew I subscribed to). He lied, but I dated him anyway. I also remember the times when I lied. It may not have been life saving, but it felt like it was at the time. In this case, my future husband (not the magazine fellow) and I were leaving a restaurant in Washington, D.C., after having gone to a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War (this was 1968). As we were walking down the street, we were met by a cadre of large men in blue, not allowing us to go past them. I could feel the tension rising in both them and my beau. I said gently, “But officers, our buses are that way and we are getting on the bus.” They let us through. No, we weren’t getting on any bus—we had driven ourselves—but we also weren’t going to cause any trouble either.

Even as a kid I remember using my mother as an excuse not to go somewhere or do something that I didn’t want to do. “Mommy, can I say ‘No, you don’t want me to.’?” It was my way of saving face with a friend. The hope is that as we mature, we can be more forthright with our convictions.

However, in the grander scheme of things, because lying is a manipulation, it is a power game. What complicates matters is that we humans are so easily deceived and are so gullible.

Bhattacharjee cites how researchers have found that, “We’re prone to believe some lies even when they’re unambiguously contradicted by clear evidence.” Sadly, we can be easily duped by people in power who lie powerfully. The brain of an habitual liar, scientists say, actually changes in a way that makes the lying easier. The amygdala in our brain gets inured to recurrent lying. There is a reason why, with the age of reason, we want our children to internalize a moral compass and understand the difference between truths and lies, right and wrong.

Sissela Bok, a noted professor of ethics who wrote Lying: Moral Choice and Private Life, tells Bhattacharjee: “Lying is so easy compared to other ways of gaining power.”

We want to trust and want to hear what we want to hear. “When we are fed falsehoods by people who have wealth, power, and status, they appear to be even easier to swallow …”

Unfortunately, all the facts and evidence that even a Sherlock could produce is not enough to refute errant beliefs and prejudices. Both Professor George Lakoff and Briony Swire-Thompson’s research would attest to this, according to Bhattacharjee.

So, “you can fool all the people some of the time, some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time!” Or can you?