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The Art of Deception: Why We Do It, and How to Stop

The liar’s punishment is not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.
-George Bernard Shaw

Recently a friend of mine was at a clothing store, admiring some shirts but not really in need of anything. A saleslady approached her and asked her if there was anything she was looking for. Instead of the truth, which was that she wasn’t looking for anything  in particular, my friend blurted out, “a dress!” She and the clerk spent a quarter of an hour looking at dresses before she made an excuse to leave, and she was left wondering why in the world she would have told such a needless lie.

For many of us, lying is second-nature. But why do we spend so long avoiding the truth? Despite our best intentions, lying is often simply a way to avoid confrontation or rejection. It often serves as a way to make ourselves look better.

According to Dr. Brad Blanton, a psychologist, and founder of the radical honesty movement, “Lying is saying or withholding information in order to manipulate someone’s opinion of you. It captures your attention by bringing your focus to the story you’re telling, the image you’re preserving, and the secret that you’re hiding. You’re no longer able to focus your attention wherever you want to focus it; you’re only able to focus your attention on the lies you’re telling and the secret you’re keeping. This captured attention creates stress.” This stress is completely avoidable – in many situations, you’ll find lying only brings on the uncomfortable situations you are trying to avoid.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia, found that,“both men and women lie in about one fifth of their social exchanges lasting 10 or more minutes; over the course of a week they deceive about 30 percent of those with whom they interact one-on-one.” Another study found that 96% of Canadians lie regularly. Why must we deceive each other so often?

Some would argue that it is an attempt to preserve our reputations, or even to avoid intimacy. Have you ever lied about the reason you were upset, so you didn’t have to explain it? We pretend to be blameless, happy individuals, always.

In many ways, our attempts to appear perfect are not necessary. If 96% of people are regularly lying, it would seem that most of us have flaws, things we would rather keep hidden. It can be really freeing to admit the truth, especially when you find that you’re not alone. The interesting thing about complete honesty is that it often prompts reciprocation. You may find yourself really connecting with people once you show your true self.

We may brush off the little lies we tell, thinking they don’t really matter. The truth is, lying deeply affects your mind. The liar becomes entrenched in a reality which does not exist, and begins to detach from the situation at hand. Also, cortisol levels give a slight spike. Depending on the severity of the lie, heart rates may rise. There are even physical changes in your brain; “lying leaves telltale traces on brain scans”, says Feroze Mohamed, PhD. Compulsive liars also have more white matter in their prefrontal cortex.

Lying affects your body. This can be demonstrated by the phenomenon of muscle testing, which seems to indicate that telling lies can actually undermine your musculature.  Many of you may be familiar with muscle testing, a practice which uses knowledge of ancient Chinese medicine to read the body’s messages. It is often used to interpret the body’s response to allergens, nutritional deficiencies or energy blockages, but may also be used to detect a liar. First, the subject raises their arm out straight beside them. Then you ask them questions, while pressing down gently on the arm. If they’re saying anything that is not true, their muscle structure weakens instantly and you’ll be able to push their arm down effortlessly. I myself can vouch for the effectiveness of this technique. It may be preformed on any large muscle group. This goes to show the profound effect lying has throughout the body.

We spend a lot of time explaining the importance of integrity and honesty to our kids, and yet we don’t practice it ourselves. It may be in part because society often rewards liars – at a very young age, you have have gotten out of trouble scot-free. You probably still remember it – there’s nothing like the glorious feeling of getting away with something. And whether it’s as a salesperson, politician, lawyer or office-worker, this tantalizing idea of lying as an escape continues on well into adult life. But the truth is, while books like Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot and Dreamworks film Catch Me If You Can may glamorize deceit, when you’re caught in a lie, nothing is more damaging to your reputation. It can be mortifying to yourself and hurtful to others, but too often we think of short-term gain rather than long-term pain.

In the coming week, why not make a concerted effort to tell the truth? You may feel a rush of exhilaration that comes with really saying what’s on your mind. You may forge connections you never thought you could. Perhaps it’s time to step up and take responsibility for your actions, instead of shirking, evading and pretending. Though feel free to lie and say you did 🙂

In any case, here are some helpful tips to start fending off fibs:

1) You don’t have to volunteer everything. Too often people lie to fill silences or because of their own discomfort, when it isn’t really necessary. Also, help out your fellow man and avoid pressing people when they seem reticent: no need to prompt a lie.

2) Your stories are good on their own! You’d be surprised how rounding out stories with extra details takes enthusiasm and conviction from the telling.  Suddenly you’re trying to keep all these balls in the air instead of concentrating on conveying a memory.

3) Don’t corner people. If you catch someone in a misdeed, it’s tempting to start asking revealing questions. “Remember how you said you were sick today? I thought maybe I could drop by with some soup …” But this does nothing but force people to further deceive. It’s far better to calmly explain what has transpired, and they can acknowledge the error without further embarrassment.

4) Use humor. Humor has the combined benefits of admitting the problem while coming across as winning and friendly. Had Mr. Leacock simply laughed and said, “I’m sorry. Could I be any worse at banking?” the following story may have turned out very differently:

5) When you feel a lie coming on: take a deep breath, and think about how the person you are speaking to would feel if they knew you had lied to them. Think about the possible consequences of getting caught in the lie, and be honest. Almost immediately, you’ll feel a sense of relief of having told the truth.

Now, let’s end with a profound and amusing counterpoint about when it is NOT appropriate to tell the truth…

Some interesting ideas!

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger