The Science of Lying
Updated: Mar 16, 2019
by Loralyn Mears, PhD
This post was originally published March 14, 2019 at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/science-lying-loralyn-mears-phd/
Liar, liar pants on fire
Whoa. Has the world lost its moral compass or was it just a really bad week?
In this era of fake news, lying and cheating has somehow become a spectator sport. Coincidentally enough, it’s the 30th anniversary of the world-wide web. Cheers Sir Tim Berners-Lee! Who could have predicted that the internet would have enabled such a sport?
Over the last seven days alone, we’ve had a front row seat to some of the most jaw-dropping moments in this new sport. We collectively held our breath yet couldn’t look away from the trainwreck, otherwise known as rapper R.Kelly, having an epic meltdown on national TV. We watched him huff and puff his way through his interview with Gayle King, professing his innocence up, down and sideways.
“Saying ‘I’m sorry I got caught’ is not an inspiring plea for leniency .” ~Judge Amy Berman Jackson
With all but a physical hand gesture of “oh-no-you-don’t, not in my court”, Judge Amy Berman Jackson slapped Paul Manafort (President Trump’s former campaign chairman) with an additional 43 months of jail time (on top of the 4.5 years sentenced by a Virginia court) for his witness tampering and meddling in foreign affairs. But that was after she scolded him for all the lies.
Stormy Daniels, the embattled political porn-star, and her attorney, Michael Avenatti, parted ways. Daniels stated that she was grateful for Avennatti’s counsel, but that he was disrespectful towards her, ignored her requests for tighter accounting of her legal defense fund and sued President Trump for defamation without her consent. Avenatti, not to be outdone, said that he and his team were “terminating legal representation of her for various reasons that we cannot disclose publicly given the attorney-client privilege.” Who do you believe?
Then, just when you thought things couldn’t get any crazier, the FBI nearly broke the internet earlier this week by cracking the largest college admissions scandal in the history of our country. Or any country for that matter. They were swift and ruthless, shaking down over 50 celebrities, coaches and ivy league administrators.
Earlier today, actor Jussie Smollett plead not-guilty to charges of lying to the police. He is accused of allegedly staging a hate crime. The evidence suggests that this may have been a hoax and this in of itself should be even more disturbing than it already is given the times that we live in.
Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO of the disreputed clinical laboratory, Theranos, is on deck next. As one of the greatest liars of all time, she will be the subject of several TV programs over the next couple of days. Tomorrow (March 15), ABC will be airing a documentary, “The Dropout.” On Monday (March 18), HBO will air “The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley”, which is its own version of the cautionary tale of hubris, pressure, lies and how some of the smartest and savviest people were duped out of more than half a billion dollars.
And it wasn’t all that long ago that we saw some ordinary people (and celebrities) become household names and all-stars in this new sport. These people were paraded in front of Congress for various suspected injustices. We watched Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, blink fast and swallow. Hard. Professor Christine Blasey Ford bit her lip, choked back tears, tugged at her memories and soldiered on through a torrent of questions, ultimately upending her formerly quiet existence as a champion of #metoo in the fight to expose then-nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh. With the title of Supreme Court Justice on the line, and a sexual assault charge standing in his way, we next watched Judge Kavanaugh totally implode in an exhibition that was the complete antithesis of the calm, enlightened demeanor expected of our judiciaries.
Of course, lest we forget Enron. Or Lance Armstrong, elite athlete, winner of an unprecedented seven Tours de France, former spokesperson for big pharma, founder of a charity designed to inspire hope as a champion for cancer survival. Except that he lied about his doping. Plus all that destruction and carnage that resulted from Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme, including the suicide of his own son and so many others who lost their life savings.
The science of lying
Pamela Meyer, the author of “Lie-spotting”, cites that experts estimate that we are lied to at least 10 times per day: some say as many as 200 times. Tell-tale signs like extended eye contact, excessive blinking, the use of distancing language like “that girl” versus personalizing the subject with her given name, a rigid upper body and more are cues that someone is lying. Pamela’s TED talk on the subject of liars and how to spot them has been viewed more than 22 million times. What does that tell you? Yup. Those experts may have underestimated the number of times people lie to each other. There is a whole science of lying.
Studies show that we all lie. However, some of us rarely lie, some lie regularly, some tell little white lies, some tell harmful lies and some, unable to control themselves, are psychopathic masters of deception. We’ll post over-the-top exuberant and joyous photos on Facebook yet be crying ourselves to sleep. We’ll embellish our resumes so that we get interviewed for that coveted job. As the cycling doping and college admissions scandals tell us, some of us will go to any lengths. But how far is too far?
Globally, businesses lose around $4 Trillion annually due to fraud. Studies also show that if we didn’t lie, our physical and mental health would improve. We’d sleep better and experience fewer headaches. But we don’t. Instead, we lie. Why?
Human nature drives us towards being accepted by our tribe. We long to belong. In this era of social detachment, fleeting virtual connections where we’re friended one day then de-friended the next, avatars and cavernous gaps between our lives in the digital world versus the real world, we’re compelled to lie. We exaggerate half-truths in the hopes that we are invited into the club of whomever we wish would notice us. Social and peer pressure to conform is at an all-time high and your highs and lows are visible to anyone with just a click. Unfortunately, inclusion often comes with a heavy price tag.
Our brains are wired to lie
Dan Ariely, psychologist at Duke University, has conducted research to show that the more we lie, the easier it is. When we lie, the amygdala portion of our brains (where we process fear, emotion and anxiety), literally lights up. Over time, our conditioned response to feel guilty about lying wanes, and the response in our amygdalas diminishes.
Eventually, we begin to believe our own lies and no longer recognize them as such. Harvard University professor, Joshua Greene, suggests that some of us are literally wired to lie. Some of us may lack the cognitive ability to resist temptation given that we are neurologically stimulated by the promise of something better.
According to the research of Victoria Talwar, research Chair at McGill University, something changes between ages 3 and 4. As toddlers, we learn the difference between right and wrong. But, somehow, by age 4, the majority of us (74%) lie and do so often. By age 7 or 8, we get pretty good at telling and maintaining our lies so that our transgressions become increasingly difficult to spot. Part of the reason is the distortion of memory – we may not think or believe that we’re lying, but we actually are.
Coaches can keep us on course
The silver lining? We can just as easily rewire our brains by practicing honesty and truth which sets off a whole other cascade of positivity and reward via enrichment of our interactions with others. Try it – you’ll like it! Hey, I’m talking to you, Mr. Most-Unethical-Ever-Former-Boss ...
One method is to simply revert to the old-fashioned way of practicing, being disciplined plus accountable to ourselves and our teammates through a real sport, not this spectator sport nonsense of watching people become unhinged on national television. Plus, there is that whole concept of applying a strong work ethic and making an honest effort to improve.
For example, Northern Valley girls' softball coach, Bob Germano, makes the case for how teaching accountability and responsibility on the field to his team of Vipers makes its way into daily living and cues the girls up for greater success in business - and life. As a father of two daughters, Coach Bob is passionate about softball and using it as a vehicle to mentor young girls. He coaches them into being solid athletes and good people.
We need more coaches! Even when we're good, we need coaches to improve. Coaching seems to be incorrectly restricted to being beneficial only when things are bad. Nonsense! Coaches make good people great.
Why innocent people plead guilty
Here’s where it gets a little weird. Plea bargains accelerate the closure of nearly 95% of criminal cases, so that means less than 5% of all cases go to trial through a non-guilty plea. Yet the majority of news stories feature people who plead not-guilty, despite the fact that we, the armchair jury members, have already convicted them of the charges. In this situation, the attorneys are the legal coaches. Pleading guilty typically negates the need for a juried trial and often reduces the sentence, hence it seems logical and reasonable to admit guilt. But society seems to have trouble with accountability.
So it was rather unexpected when William Rick Singer, the mastermind perpetrator at the center of the nationwide college admissions scam, pleaded guilty to all charges. On the flipside, a shocking number of innocent people plead guilty, intimidated by authority figures and terrified by the prospect of being tried then convicted to a longer sentence. Attorneys make recommendations with respect to the guilty vs. not-guilty plea, but ultimately leave it up to the individual. And this creates enormous confusion and inner conflict for both those charged and those making the recommendation. The whole field of admitting guilt in the context of lying is rife for psychological analysis and further discussion.
Bottom line? We'd all be better served if we strived for greater honesty. Cheers to telling the truth!