A lie has no legs

We are not good at telling truths, but better at detecting lies

A lie has no legs
Koko is a 44-year-old female guerilla who was born in San Francisco Zoo. She is famous around the world for being the first known primate to have learned sign language and about 2,000 English words. One Christmas, she asked for and chose a kitten as a pet, and named him ‘All Bell’. The cat came in handy one day, when Koko, in a mischievous mood, ripped down a huge ceramic sink installed in her habitat. Asked why she did it, she simply replied: ‘The cat did it.’ Koko mimicked humans in every way.

Most of us lie most of the time, and all of us blame others for our behavior. Psychological research finds that 90% of people lie to a prospective date and 83% lie to get a job. Any job – be it a corporate position or a public office achieved through election – hinges on lies or unrevealed information. An American study in which volunteers were asked to keep diaries found that students told an average of two lies every day, while community members lied at least once. The highest rate of lying is between strangers, who lie to each other at least three times in the first ten minutes.

Lies take several forms and are due to numerous reasons. Mark Twain famously quoted Disraeli in classifying ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, but lies are much more than that. There are outright deceptions – like Watergate, or an illiterate person posing as a heart surgeon – but there are also routine exaggerations about one’s skills or abilities, or hiding of embarrassing past follies. Serious lies are mostly legal and moral transgressions, while common lies revolve around facts, feelings and attitudes.

No mythology, poetry or faith is devoid of exaggeration. Then there are subtle lies for the sake of looking good and to make an impression, such as a casual addition in pedigree, or a harmless omission of earlier marriage. While men ubiquitously lie about their resumes and earning potential, women are more into social lies, mostly about physical appearances.
Children lie to their mothers in 50% of conversations

Why do people lie? Aldert Vrij, who is a leading social psychologist and has written the widely read book Detecting Lies and Deceit, gives four reasons: to gain personal advantage, avoid punishment, make a positive impression in social settings, and mostly to protect ourselves from embarrassment and disapproval. So a politician is hardly expected to expose himself to disapproval and punishment by revealing his unverifiable assets or his matrimonial adventures gone awry, and would surely intend to continue enjoying the personal advantage. If the glitterati are truthful about their appearances and sources of wealth, they are bound to become laughing matters. A cult leader will be reduced to a charlatan if he reveals that his spiritual wonders are nothing more than mental gimmicks played with the impressionable public.

So how can the liars among us be caught? The moral optimists would call for volunteer rendering of truth because that is the best way. This is what we teach our kids, who are found to lie to their mothers in almost 50% of conversations. The bad news is that contrary to our beliefs, detecting lies is not easy. Using the best scientific techniques, the detection rates just hover a little above 50%, the same probability as a toss of a coin.

But lying is cumbersome. In novice liars, it causes mental stress, and makes way for a plethora of emotions – guilt, fear, stress, and excitement (called duping delight). These emotions create behavioral patterns, such as fidgeting, nodding, speech errors, pupil dilation and hand movements. Another bad news is that only the liar perfectly knows about his lies and his normal behavior, and liars get better with practice. They are invariably better prepared than their targets and also appear extra pleasant to maintain credibility.

The only sustainable solution is an assessment of the contents of their statements. Liars are prone to contradict themselves. The rate of lying is the least between the spouses and highest amongst strangers, because spouses get to know each other better than anyone else, making deception harder and easier to catch.

People only desist from lying if they are certain that they will get caught. And people only get caught if there are systems in place to assess their content and behavior. It is akin to accepted legal theory that certainty of punishment is the most effective form of deterrence. Faith and moral values are touted as a panacea, but habitual equanimity in lying does not leave much room for self regulation in social and political settings.

Modern societies are not good at telling truths, but are better at detecting lies. A political leader is in the public eye, albeit involuntarily. The electorate and the media are like surrogate spouses monitoring the activities of their leaders all the time. But monitoring is just a social check that is effective only in muddying the waters. Legal content assessment is the sole recourse for removing a liar from the public sphere. But an error in detecting a lie can be fatal and disastrous. The rash Othello found out, only after killing his wife, that the treacherous Iago “told a lie, an odious, damned lie, upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie”.