Let’s be honest: you are a natural born liar. So am I. Whether we tell little white lies, designed to spare another’s feelings, or whopping great pathological fibs, none of us can escape the inherent human tendency for untruths.
The only question is: what kind of liar are you?
Very few people actually enjoy lying. Indeed, “liar” is one of the most damaging insults you can hurl at another person. None of us wants to live or work with liars: they sow mistrust and shatter relationships.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t tell lies - and often.
Psychologist Bella de Paulo found that, on average, people tell 1.5 untruths a day. And according to a 2002 study by the University of Massachusetts, 60 per cent of adults can’t have a ten minute conversation without telling at least one lie. The researchers also found that two people will tell three lies within ten minutes of meeting each other.
As the author of a book on how and why we lie, these numbers seem, to me, like a conservative estimate.
The uncomfortable truth is that humans lie almost from the moment they are born
Both studies were carried out before the advent of social media. Facebook and Twitter have multiplied our opportunities to tell lies, and made it much easier for them to spread; these days, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has even woken up. It is no coincidence that Donald Trump is both a compulsive Twitter user and accused of being a compulsive liar. Yet we cannot blame social media; it merely amplifies our human predisposition to stray from the truth.
As Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has studied the facial expressions of liars, says: “lying is a central characteristic of life.” It is the degree to which we tell lies that separates us.
Most of us lie by saying “I’m fine” to our colleagues, when we actual feeling miserable. We lie when we coo, “what a beautiful baby!” while inwardly marvelling at its resemblance to an alien life form.
At one time or another, we have all simulated anger, sadness, or delight to fit with the expectations of others. We have exaggerated our accomplishments during job interviews. Some of us have even said “I love you” when we don’t mean it. Just about everyone has faked enthusiasm for somebody else’s below average cooking.
Sound familiar? The uncomfortable truth is that humans lie almost from the moment they are born.
Dr Vasudevi Reddy, of the University of Portsmouth’s psychology department, found examples of deceptive behaviour among children less than a year old. She observed a baby girl reaching her arms out to her mother, before backing away at the last second, laughing her head off (I have been the victim of this particular trick, as executed by my daughter).
Nor do we help matters, telling our children that lying is bad and then insisting they look grateful for the soap-on-a-rope Grandma has given them for their birthday.
Society would break down if we couldn’t rely on most people to tell the truth - yet it would also break down if we only ever told the truth
Almost as soon as children learn to talk, they use words to deceive. They start telling the simplest of lies between the ages of two and three, before moving to more sophisticated untruths between three and four. This is not something to be worried about: developmental psychologists regard it as a sign of social intelligence.
For the most part, children and adults tell ‘little white lies’ - fairly harmless everyday fibs designed to spare feelings. These are what keep the wheels of our society turning.
The paradox is that society would break down if we couldn’t rely on most people to tell the truth, most of the time - yet it would also break down if we only ever told the truth.
There would be fights on street corners. Families would be torn apart. There is good reason to give these little white liars a free pass.
There are other types of liar, however, who we don’t forgive so easily. We give a hard time to dissemblers; experts at twisting words, judiciously omitting information, creating ambiguity and crafting deniability. Certain jobs seem to demand this skill: estate agents, lawyers and politicians all rely on it.
The politicians who tell us, truthfully, that we need to make hard choices tend not to be the ones who become popular, whereas the ones who tell us we can have our cake and eat it fare far better with voters.
Even less defensible are compulsive liars, who cannot help but tell fantastical whoppers, and constantly regale people with stories that plainly aren’t true. Compulsive liars have become addicted to self-glorifying fibs because they are deeply insecure. They get a kick purely out of telling a lie. They usually hurt nobody but themselves - unless by happenstance they end up in positions of real power.
Pathological liars have powerful equipment for fibbing and no compunction whatsoever about doing so
Pathological liars (sometimes called psychopathic liars) are a different breed again; colder and more calculating. They lie with specific, self-serving goals, and are regarded by those unfortunate enough to cross their paths as manipulative, cunning and egotistical - usually after they’ve got what they wanted. They can be charming and credible, and wreak great damage on their victims.
It is these sorts of liars who regularly grab the headlines; think financial fraudster Bernie Madoff or American con man Frank Abagnale - immortalised by Leonardo DiCaprio in 2002 film Catch Me If You Can - who posed as a doctor, airline pilot, teacher and lawyer and became infamous in the 1960s for passing bad cheques worth about $2.5m in 26 countries. Theirs are entire lives built on lies, and whose deceptions negatively impact others, too.
A few years ago, neuroscientists carried out a study on the brains of pathological liars, and constructed a questionnaire designed to test for the condition. Their subjects came from the books of a temporary employment agencies in Los Angeles, as pathological liars find it difficult to hold down long term jobs. The short term gains from their lies usually catch up with them, and they live itinerant lives, constantly moving on to new workplaces, new relationships, new prey.
The neuroscientists discovered that the brains of pathological liars have more ‘white matter’. Loosely speaking, this is the area of the brain responsible for making quick connections. The more white matter, the faster a person’s stream of thought and the higher their verbal fluency - enhancing their ability for manipulation. The brains of pathological liars are fed by a constant supply of inventive untruths.
Previous studies had revealed that psychopaths also have low activity in the emotional parts of their brains – and thus little or no empathy for the effect their lies have on others. Pathological liars, in other words, have powerful equipment for fibbing, and no compunction whatsoever about doing so, making them particularly dangerous.
We might all lie, but at least the majority of us have the grace to feel a little bit bad about it, even when it comes from a good place. So next time you catch yourself telling a tall story or throwaway fib, ask yourself what sort of liar you are. Honestly? The answer might surprise you.