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Are we hardwired to lie?

by Jennifer Nelson

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Ever told a white lie—or worse, been lied to? Of course. (We all have). A compilation of research on lying opens a wide lens toward just how and why humans love to spin a tall tale.

Turns out being deceitful is woven into the very fabric of existence. As Yudhijit Bhattacharjee writes, “Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies.”

Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has studied lying for three decades (and has worked as a professional, human lie detector). In one study, she asked 147 adults to jot down every instance they misled someone for a week. Researchers found the subjects lied one or two times per day on average. Most lies were benign—hiding inadequacies, protecting other’s feelings, and providing excuses. But other lies were told to present a false image, like claiming graduation from a prestigious school or relation to a notable ancestor.

It’s one thing to utter white lies, but another of DePaulo’s studies show most people spout real whoppers sometimes—hiding an affair, lying on a job application, withholding information from authorities.

Lying describes an ability to engineer what we might want sans force. Sisela Bock, a Harvard ethicist and prominent authority on lying, says it’s easier to get money from others by lying rather than hitting them over the head and grabbing their purse, for instance.

Exactly how and when do we learn to fib anyway? According to experts, kids learn to lie the same way they learn to walk and talk; it’s a developmental milestone they hit by age two-and-a-half or three.

A study published in “Developmental Psychology” asked a set of 65 kids not to peek at a hidden toy. When the examiner turned away, 50 percent of 3-year-olds and 80 percent of 8-year-olds snuck a look. When asked whether they peeked, most of the set had lied.

Why fib?

Researchers believe that our penchant for deception and our vulnerability to being deceived are enhanced by social media. Take Facebook. It’s a platform to post remarkable news and events, vacations and blessings, yet not many reveal the truth of their lives—the stuff that when examined more closely may not paint such a pretty wall. Does that make Facebook a big, fat lie?

In a poll conducted for the book “The Day America Told the Truth”, 90 percent of the subjects interviewed admitted dishonesty about a list of commonalities including their true feelings, income, accomplishments, sex life, and age.

Are we hardwired to lie?

In a 2005 study by psychologist Yaling Yang, researchers found that liars had at least 20 percent more volume of neural fibers in their prefrontal cortex, suggesting that habitual liars may be predisposed to duplicity. They may be quicker to concoct lies than others or simply be good at double-dealing.

Can you tell if someone is lying?

Unfortunately, avoiding eye contact, acting nervous, or leaving out details are not good indicators of deceit. The term “liar’s advantage” explains how we can become an unsuspecting victim of a lie. It seems most people don’t typically expect deception, and can, therefore, be more easily sucked in. If we don’t  expect a stranger to lie about being homeless, a caller to lie about working for the IRS, or a spouse to lie about their whereabouts, we may be more likely to fall for a fib or scam.

So is cynicism the best guard against deception? Not exactly. Having the skill to spot untruths may go a long way. Pamela Meyer, certified fraud examiner and author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception”, says liars may make excessive eye contact, rub or touch their eyes, fiddle with objects, repeat the question before formulating a response, avoid contractions or more casual language, and use excessive specificity when acting dishonestly.

Meyer suggests we can become more trusting (and less cynical) of others when we build confidence in our own abilities to detect lies.

Now tell me, do you like my new haircut?


Artwork by KYLE BECK/KAREN HONG

Jennifer Nelson

Jennifer Nelson is a FL-based writer and author of Airbrushed Nation: The Lure & Loathing of Women’s Magazines (Seal Press). She writes about health, wellness, psychology and pop culture for outlets like AARP, WebMD, MSNBC and Next Avenue. Follow her on Twitter @nelsonjennifer.

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