Monday, 18 November 2013

Why do we lie?

Have you lied yet, today? Why did you do it?

Image: PsyBlog
According to research, we lie 3 times within 10 minutes of meeting someone new, usually to exaggerate our competence or to appear likeable. Apparently, this is an instinctive response that occurs across cultures, because we are all making judgements about two issues: 
  • Are they Friend or foe? Is this person going to hurt me or help me?
  • Are they Capable of hurting or helping? Can this person help me if they’re friendly or hurt me if they’re not?
Whilst we’re checking out the person we’ve met with these criteria in mind, we’re also giving out the same information to them.

Categories of Lies

The kind of lies we find most detestable are those with malicious intent of some kind: lies designed to swindle or con us, lies that will cause us hardship or pain further down the road. Yet many lies are motivated by the exact opposite, they are designed to keep everyone happy.

White Lies

‘White’ lies are fibs that are meant to be harmless. They come in many categories: courtesy lies, falsely agreeing, self-esteem lies and false excuses, for example. They are designed to make us seem more agreeable and capable than we are. Take a courtesy lie, for example. Say someone keeps us waiting – it could be a bank clerk or a friend. They apologise and in response, we say ‘It’s okay,’ with a smile, when really we’re thinking, ‘Actually, it’s really annoying that you’ve kept me standing here for ten minutes…’ But, we do it to appear easy-going and to avoid confrontation.

Falsely agreeing is similar. A friend asks 'What do you think?' when they emerge from the changing room in a new dress. 'It really suits you,' you say -  even though it looks hideous, in order to make them feel better. Someone asks, ‘How are you?’ and you reply, ‘Fine’ when actually you feel terrible. Technically they are all lies. But there is also a social convention at work here: social nicety – the person asking or responding wants to look like they care about you – even though it’s ‘fake’, you lie to fit in and somehow it breaks the ice.

We use lies as excuses to avoid looking heartless, such as claiming we have a dentist appointment or our child is ill, when asked to do something we don’t want to do. We lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. We also blame others to make ourselves look less incompetent; when we  don’t get to a meeting on time, we blame the traffic or the queue at the bus-stop. In the same way, we tell ‘denial’ lies – ‘Did you post my letter, today?’ ‘Yes, of course’ - which covers up for the fact that it’s still in our bag and we must remember to do it tomorrow.

But how many big lies have you told, recently? There are ‘escalating’ lies where once you’ve told one untruth, you have to tell another to keep the false story going. Extra-marital affairs are like this or lies about the big things in life such as money or debt. Complex webs are created when a person tries to cover up being fired from work, or when they ‘forgot’ to take the Pill because they want a baby.
Like most human behaviours – it’s the motive behind the lie that is most interesting.
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A J Waines is a crime fiction author of The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.

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