Humans Have Become Too Good at Lying

From politicians to criminals, relationships to media relations, we're all liars living in a lying world. But how much do we care?

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Nov 19 2014, 9:26am

Artwork by ​Nick Scott 

​I'd like to say I always tell the truth but that would be a lie. 

In fact, one of my first jobs was to lie. About six years ago, while working on the food magazine at a national newspaper, my job was to ring up restaurants pretending to be a celebrity agent with ridiculous requests. I remember the first time I did it. I found myself a beanbag in a quiet corner of the office and, cradling my Nokia 1100 in one sweaty palm, told the manager of Wagamama in Soho that I had a couple of Daleks in town for the weekend to do some promo, and I wanted to check the branch had sufficient wheelchair access. 

I sat and waited, shifting my position nervously, the beans crackling around my arse. Would this sweet man really believe me? What's more, would he buy that one of the party was vegetarian? Well, with enough conviction, if you really "go method", turns out you can make pretty much anything sound legit. The manager promptly went outside, checked the lift and came back to the phone to confirm that it would indeed transport a metric tonne of steel so "that would be fine". He then listed the tofu options from the menu.

There are no words to describe the relief of realising that you are a highly efficient alchemist of bullshit. Consequently, I spent the next six months terrorising the mid-level catering industry in order to pay my rent. 

From asking the manager of Bodeans' in Soho for a booth wide enough to accommodate Grace Coddington's hair, to explaining with adequate candour to the manager of Gaucho that a vegan activist called George Clooney would like a table for two but wouldn't sit within 100m of red meat, as each month passed, the requests grew more outlandish. But I never failed to peddle my crap. I was an excellent liar.

After six months they canned the column and guess what? I was relieved. Lying is hard work. I had grown sickened; sickened by the managers' unswerving guilelessness, but ultimately by my own relentless creativity. After all, being a good liar is nothing to be proud of.

So why do we do it? Often for no money, day in and out, to the point of habit, and to the ones we love even when it's not necessary? 

At risk of sounding like a twat, Wittgenstein nailed this latter point, observing the habituality of lying – how often we tell a fib when the truth would have sufficed. My job notwithstanding, we do it in part because we want to narrow the gap between the fantasy of ourselves – punctual, high-achieving, faithful, whatever – and the reality. 

In retrospect, I justified lying for money by reminding myself that the man at the end of the line was equally complicit. This might sound odd – like it's their fault – but it's actually the crux of a TED talk argument by Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting. As she explains: "We're against lying, but we're covertly for it in ways that our society has sanctioned for centuries and centuries and centuries. It's as old as breathing. It's part of our culture, it's part of our history".

That's not to say we all care to admit it. It is thought that 91 percent of us regularly embroider events with twaddle, but I bet you wouldn't brand yourself a liar.

Take the author, journalist and documentary maker, Jon Ronson. "I'm shit at lying," he tells me. He should know. He's built a career by effectively detecting when others spout crap. His inability to lie is not entirely his choice, though. "My entire nature is a mix of anxiety, guilt and remorse, so lying is counterproductive."

"Everyone I've met is a spectacular liar," he explains, "and one of the items I've written about at length is pathological lying. Proper, high scoring people, that, if you catch them lying, don't feel bad. They just don't care. If you interview a psychopath, they just switch like that – there is an absence of emotion."

The example that springs to Ronson's mind is an interview he conducted for ​The Psychopath Test with a Haitian death squad leader called Emmanuel Constant. Constant – aka Toto – was the co-leader of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, also known as Fraph, who routinely hectored supporters of the Haitian exiled president. His crimes were more vast and varied than my word count will allow but suffice to say, he was a cock. 

"But all he wanted to do was protest his innocence despite the atrocities he had definitely committed," says Ronson. "It was frustrating because it hindered the process [of interviewing]. He was pretending to cry. It was weird, like hammy acting." Ronson suggests that people always assume liars are Machiavellian people who lie to be liked. But, once confronted, Constant was unrepentant. He didn't give a shit.

It makes for an unusual dynamic when you know the person is lying. But what about the day-to-day fibs so many of us tell? Well, truth be told (or not), explains Meyer, it's a co-operative act, and one whose true power only emerges when someone agrees to believe the lie. 

Some of the most famous people we know lie extensively. We are fascinated with liars. Some people are famous because of lying and we just swallow it. For example, some have suggested that the extensive use of personal pronouns in her court statement ​indicate she was embellishing the truth.

Language is one of the most effective lie-detectors we have. But we suck it all up. We know lies happen every day and we just accept it. From PRs embellishing the truth to sell something (or doing that annoying "Re." thing in the email subject line – mate, we haven't ever had a conversation about your natty Christmas stocking fillers), to politicians bullshitting their way into power, we've come to expect and accept it. Without lies, society as we know it wouldn't make sense. A good, decade-old New Yorker cartoon about a politician talking to press surmises it neatly: "​I'm not spinning – I'm contextualising."

Politicians are a good entry level into the world of lying. Because, although it's thought most politicians enter the game with ideals, a sense of truth and justice, before long they are presented with the dilemma of being truthful or winning, and subsequently lie. What's more, we have come to expect endemic deceit, despite being understandably upset when people do lie.

Ralph Keyes, author of The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, thinks lying has reached pandemic-levels, and suggests we are living in a "post-truth society", one in which "casual dishonesty" has morphed into the quotidian. He thinks it's a modern issue: "Trends [range] from the postmodern disdain for 'truth' to therapeutic non-judgment that encourages deception... and as the volume of strangers and acquaintances in our lives rises, so do opportunities to improve on the truth," he says.

Of course, the flip side of living in a post-truth society is that, with social media,  lying has a very different status now. It's harder to lie and easier to get caught. This is one of the key issues raised in the much-hyped podcast Serial. This podcast follows a 15-year-old American murder case, in which a 17-year-old student, Hae Min Lee, was strangled to death. Lee's ex, Adnan Syed, 17, who broke up with her a month before her death, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison, where he has been ever since. Journalist Sarah Koenig thinks he was wrongly convicted and has set out to prove his innocence, but since events took place in 1999, i.e. pre-Facebook, this proves doubly hard. 

Can you remember what you did on a Friday night six weeks ago – let along 15 years – without the crutch of social media or even Smartphone technology? And if not, what would you do if pushed? 

Do you guess? Or, worse, lie? The latter is probably (possibly – I haven't finished the podcast yet) what happened. According to psychologist Dr. Bella DePaulo, chances are she won't find out. Why? Because humans are pretty rubbish at detecting lies. "People are right about 54 percent of the time at knowing whether someone is lying or telling the truth," ​she told New York magazine. "That's when, by chance (just by guessing), they would be right 50 percent of the time." Furthermore, people who can readily detect lies tend to be less trustworthy.

There are, of course, moments when lying is OK. Not good, necessarily, but there are times when we should be a little less hasty with judgment. We generally call these "white lies" and they work when deployed with an honest, utilitarian intention – i.e. "the greater good". For example, I lie to my mum about what time my train gets in because she's always late. Call me a dick if you want, but it really pisses me off, so, in my eyes, this vanilla act prevents a row. TARS, the robot in Interstellar, operates at 90 percent honesty, which the programmer believes is the optimum amount.

"I'm shit at lying. My entire nature is a mix of anxiety, guilt and remorse, so lying is counterproductive" – Jon Ronson

If you're struggling to take in the truth behind the world of bullshit in which we live, Meyer gives us some relaxing facts about lying in her TED talk. You will lie to your spouse during one in ten conversations, apparently, and, if you're not married, you're likely to lie more. ​Men lie more than women (Ronson thinks men are more afraid of the consequences of telling the truth and being reprimanded), while women, ever benevolent, tend to lie to protect others. Research suggests we are ​more likely to lie or cheat in the afternoon and evening, when our brains are tired.

Of course, I've been lied to in some horrific ways both by a parent and a partner. But, as a writer who sometimes writes about herself, I am fortunate enough to be able to offset the damage by writing about it, mining the acts of others in return for – yep – money.

Not everyone is this fortunate. Psychotherapy has taught us that liars have a comparatively easier run. The less sociopathic ones may experience self-loathing at having lied, but, having realised this, they at least have the power to turn shit around for themselves, rebuild their narrative. Bully for them. For the victim of the lie, it's a very different story. 

Lying is damaging, devilish and expensive. In fact, one of the functions of therapy is to reconstruct a patient's life narrative after they've been lied to. Lies undermine our memory, making us question every truth on which our life has been built. The victim of the lies – from a partner hiding debt to having an affair – ​has an incomparably worse experience than the liar. What's more, says a therapist friend, "they tend to blame themselves for what went wrong".

If you've been lied to, you'll know that being lied to sucks. "I had a guy lie to me in a work situation," says Ronson. "It was hurtful. He made false promises. I didn't call him out and it got worse. I began to feel victimised."

That said, the flip side is tricky. For Ronson's next book (out next year), he took a course on radical honesty. "You tell people the absolute truth. Radical honesty was weird. Replacing lying with something quite aggressive. It causes trouble."

So what's the answer? Confront the liar and risk revealing your fiancée to be a sociopath? Or buy their lies? Or, simply accept that this is where we are. Liars in a lying world, lying through our teeth. I'd like to say the former of the three but I'd probably be lying.

​@morwennastar

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