Everybody. People. Animals. Everybody. Often, it’s a matter of survival. In a New York Timesscience story, Natalie Angier writes about deception in the animal kingdom: “Harmless viceroy butterflies mimic toxic monarch butterflies, parent birds draw predators away from the nest by feigning a broken wing, angler fish lure prey with appendages that wiggle like worms.”
We can probably agree that there are times when lying is, if not strictly necessary, at least not horrible. Say your husband asks you if you think he still looks good in that pair of jams he wore back in college. Do you tell him the truth, that the sagging gut hanging over the drawstring is a bit off-putting? Or do you tell him he looks finer than frog hairs split four ways, and every bit the football-star-hunk he did back in the day? You lie.
Whether we believe that a white lie is acceptable or not, we can all agree that untruths are part of the toolbox we all use to survive.
Who lies more, men or women?
Turns out, neither. Girls and boys lie in very similar numbers. They do, however, tend to lie for different reasons.
A study by Bella DePaulo, Deborah Kashy, Susan Kirkendol, and Melissa Wyer titled “Lying in Everyday Life” (published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) found that men often lie to bolster their image.
Women, on the other hand, may fabricate to protect another’s ego, writes Aldert Vrij in Detecting Lies and Deceit. They tend to fib to make their friends feel better.
DePaulo’s research also suggests that husbands and wives lie to each other at similar rates and for similar reasons. And unwed couples lie more about their prior relationships and their current indiscretions.
In a word: fear.
There are two possible stances from which a person might lie: defensive and offensive.
According to Aldert Vrij in Detecting Lies and Deceit, people lie from a defensive posture for reasons of self-protection. They may fear punishment or embarrassment. They might fear rejection or loss of something (greed). People generally fear conflict and will often lie to avoid it. Fear of being unpopular or ostracized is a strong motivator. Insecurity, vanity, hatred, revenge, greed, and envy are all sources of fear and potential inducements to stretch the truth.
Fear of Punishment
In 2008, when Bernard Madoff admitted that his investment firm was a massive lie, the financial world, thousands of investors, and even his family wondered how he’d kept it all under wraps for so long. Madoff used all sorts of methods—from charm to faking a paper trail to flashes of outraged defensiveness—to keep the grift going for well over a decade.
His motive was fear of exposure, punishment, and loss. And he had much to lose: power, wealth, respect, and position. In the end, he was right to be afraid; he lost all those things, and even lost his son to suicide, once his lies were uncovered.
Fear of Emotional Harm
We often lie to ourselves and others to protect ourselves from painful feelings.
“I didn’t really like that guy very much anyway. It never would have worked.”
Hollywood stars lie about their ages. Executives lie about the “important call” that interrupts a meeting. Disgraced politicians leave office citing the need to “spend time with family.” Whenever a person is on the defensive, fear can, and often does, lead to a subordination of the truth.
Instead of lying to protect, some people lie with something to gain—money, power, or a desire to “win.” But in reality, these are also reactions to fear. We want to please and impress others. We fear failure.
Diana B. Henriques, author of The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust, suggests that Madoff may have been motivated by a drive to succeed where his father had failed. His father, the ambitious son of Eastern European immigrants, had lost his business to bankruptcy when Bernie was twelve years old. His bad credit followed him as he bounced from job to job.
“It was an early lesson in deceit for a son determined to be more successful than his father,” writes Henriques.
Bernie Madoff himself almost came to ruin in 1962, early in his career. He was a small-time investment manager, quietly making risky investments for relatives, friends, and low-dollar investors who didn’t have fortunes to lose. In late May, the market took a dive, decimating the risky “new-issues” market in which he’d invested so heavily.
He faced a tough choice: Inform his clients that he’d lost their money by making reckless bets, or borrow the money to buy back the stock at its original price, and allow investors to believe he’d weathered the crisis with no losses. He did the latter, writes Henriques: “He lied about it, covering it up in ways that preserved his reputation and thus laid the foundation for all that came later in his life of crime.”
His customers “continued to think of him as a brilliant money manager who could safely navigate even the rocky market of 1962…that reputation would help him attract and hold the wealthy and influential investors who would become the first to testify to his genius.”
Were Madoff’s early lies motivated by fear of failure or discovery, or by a desire to impress people and burnish his reputation? Were they defensive lies or offensive lies?
Separating the two, it seems, is not so simple. After all, where’s the line between drive for success and fear of failure? Does it lie anywhere near the line between legal and illegal, ethical and unethical, lies and truth?
As Henriques says in a 2013 interview with Pursuit Magazine, a compulsive conman like Madoff may not fully understand his own motives. “I don’t think you can be a criminal without that capacity to defend yourself against the reality of what you’re doing,” she says. “The first big lie a Ponzi schemer has to tell is to himself.”
Everybody lies. Some estimates have humans lying to each other at least once every ten minutes. It’s part of the human condition. We lie.
Here’s the thing: there is no one fool-poof method of detecting deception. There are clues, there are theories, there are tools; but the truth is: often, spotting a lie is just not possible unless you already know the facts.
It is possible to clearly identify indicators of stress. Stress being a common result of lying, it’s helpful in isolating topics about which people may not be telling the truth. But stress alone is not a lie. Place anyone in an interrogation room and pepper them with aggressive questions from behind your badge, and you’ll see signs of stress.
In studying the psychology of lies and deception detection, we must be careful in assessing claims of expertise and recognize that at best, we are simply measuring and observing the outward signals. The truth lies much deeper.