Over the past few weeks, we've looked into various ideas and notions around truth. We learned that interpreting holy texts, like the Bible, is a very subjective endeavour and fraught with opportunity to make mistakes. This led our investigation into the Quantum world where we learned some interesting and quirky likelihoods that might make lying impossible. This week we investigate what motivates people to lie and we'll find out if there are any benefits to making a commitment to truth.
"I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God."
There are two primary ways to lie: the first is to conceal facts and the other is to falsify them. There is however only one way to tell the truth: to tell it as it is from your point of view.
When facts are concealed, the first way of lying, a person withholds information without actually uttering an untruth. Let's say you left the office, travelled to meet up with your affair, then you popped in at the gym to freshen up before going home. When lying by omission you might present a story something like this, "I left the office and went across to the gym before coming home." You never actually lied about not having an affair, you simply didn't mention it. Lying by omission is often easier to do than falsifying facts because it is much easier to cover up afterwards by pleading ignorance and it is equally easy to say the you simply forgot to mention some of the facts. However, memory failure is credible only in limited circumstances. Once a victim of the lie starts to challenge the liar, lies tend to get harder to hide, and the liar suddenly loses the choice whether to conceal or falsify information. If your partner asks, "Exactly when did you leave the office and at what time did you arrive at the gym because they're quite near to each other and seems as though it took you a long time to get home today." These questions are awkward and require a lot of fast thinking on your feet. Further falsification now becomes necessary to help you cover evidence of what you concealed. "Oh, I forgot to mention that there was a horrible accident and it took me forever to get through the gridlock." But the victim is suspicious and dissatisfied with your answer, probing even deeper, "Which route did you take because the radio didn't mention the accident at all?" Now you are forced to compound your lie by adding further falsified evidence which digs you into a deeper hole, "It was a back route to avoid the traffic, that's probably why the accident wasn't mentioned." Rule number one: when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you do is to stop digging.
A lie made up of falsification fact is far harder to carry out because it needs a good memory to remember the whole story so that you don't trap yourself in the web of lies and get caught out. Falsification begins in the same way as concealment, the liar withholds information but then he or she takes an added step by presenting false information as if it were true. Here's a falsified version of our story, "I left the office and met up with one of our suppliers for a glass of wine at the mall before going across to the gym." The falsified version accounts for the time lapse between the office and the gym but it opens the lie to some interesting precise questioning by the victim, "Which café did you go to in the mall because I was also in the centre and it would have been nice to join you?" Oops! Now you've got to think fast. If you mention a specific coffee shop, your partner might have been there. Having to think at such lightning speed is stressful and prone to mistakes. Can you conceal your lie?
But concealment and falsification of fact don't always constitute a lie. Unless someone specifically asked, would you be lying if you didn't disclose your HIV status to an acquaintance? If you and your partner agreed to an open relationship, would it be an offense to hide your affair with another person? Lying is always intentional. But mistaken beliefs about something, inaccurate recollection fact or having a different perception are not lies. An honest person usually makes little mistakes, particularly in relating a long, complex story.
White lies are generally regarded as minor lies which most people feel are harmless, or sometimes even beneficial. Many people use white lies with intentions for greater good, like shielding someone from a hurtful or emotionally damaging truth, especially when it is completely harmless for them not to know the truth. My mom once drove over Ziggie our cat. When we got out of the car, the cat quivered and moaned for a bit and then died in front of my sister and me. Mom said, "Oh my, our kitty has just had a heart attack. Isn't it lucky that we were here with her to say goodbye?" It was only much later when I remembered the bump as the car drove over the cat and when I finally put one and one together. Was it wrong for mom to lie to two small children?
Liars often try to deflect probing questions by mislead their victims. They masterfully dodge and shift blame, "Why are you asking all these questions? Do you think I'm lying to you?" They might admit the truth but with such exaggeration or humour that the target remains uninformed or misled, "Ha, ha, ha. So, you think I stopped off to spend time with an affair somewhere between the office and the gym. Unbelievable. If that's what you want to believe, then go ahead."
It is however quite easy to suspect that someone is lying to you by detect lies from incongruences in their choice of words, in changes of voice and in shifts, flicks and gestures in their body language. We call them "deception clues" and they are unintentional and frequently unavoidable mistakes made by the liar. A liar's nightmare is to have to think at lightning speed on his or her feet. Most liars don't always have time to fully rehearse their lies and even if they did, they are often caught off-guard when precise questions are asked. Precise questions quickly poke holes in lies and tend to expose the liar. This not-knowing-what-to-anticipate-next, causes stress which can be hard to mask. Even clever liars get caught out because of unseen changes in circumstances. Any discrepancy between fact and lie may offer obvious clues to deceit. When stories are too well rehearsed and are repeated verbatim it gives one a clue that the story is probably made-up. Even in a court of law, corroborating evidence from multiple witnesses will vary slightly from person to person. Pathological liars are clever enough to know this and then make slight mistakes so as not to seem too smooth. An unskilled liar will have a story down pat so he or she can tell it over and over without a scrap of deviation. We can also begin to suspect a lie if the person spends too much time and attention on reinforcing certain aspects of the story. There is a Shakespearean quote from Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" which describes someone whose overly frequent and vehement attempts to convince other of some matter of which the opposite is true, thereby making themselves appear defensive and insincere.
Then there is the matter of deception guilt. Some people don't feel guilty about the content of a lie but they do feel guilty about lying. Deception guilt can be a torturing experience for the liar. Shame is closely related to guilt but there is a key difference between them. Guilt is a personal judgement of right and wrong, a form of conscience that nobody else need know about. But this is not the case for shame. The humiliation of shame comes about because of the disapproval or ridiculed of others.
Liars often try to cover the lie by hiding it underneath a false emotion. The most common false emotion used to cover up a lie is the sweet, innocent smile. However, the real emotion often leaks out from under the mask because it hard to hide true feelings. The eyes don't smile, only the mouth does. And it's really hard to keep the mask up for a long time and there are tiny flashes of the real emotion under the mask that occur from time to time. These micro-gestures happen in less than a second but the quickly give the game away to an astute observer. Emotional leakage is always suspicious. The smile tries to mask fear, anger, distress, disgust, and so forth but it is very hard to keep the face and hands still while lying. The stress is often so great that it causes a liar to look way, turn sideways or try to cover the face in some way. Emotional or factual leakage only helps to detect deception but it does not reveal anything about the lie itself. A quiver of the lip, a tremble in the voice, a raised upper eyelid, rapid breathing or a tightening in the voice might suggest a lie but it doesn't reveal what information was falsified. Getting to the bottom of a lie can be a very difficult task. Take for instance how difficult it is to get your partner to confess to an affair that you know is happening.
Here's a little game I'm quite good at playing: I have four bank notes with me, a hundred, a fifty, a twenty and a ten Rand note and I'm going to use them to get to learn how xxx lies. How? By insisting that he/she answers all of my questions about these notes by always saying "yes". Listen carefully as I play this game with him/her…
Listen to the podcast to hear it.
Did you spot the way he/she lies? There is emotional leakage from the shame of having had to lie and it comes across as an altered form of the word "yes".
Punishment attempts to deter bad behaviour but it also reinforces the need to lie to avoid reprimand. I remember when my cousin hurled abuse at the neighbour, my mother called us children in and asked us to line up from the oldest to the youngest. She questioned each child as she went down the line, "Was it you?" The answer was a consistent, "No, it wasn't me." We knew that it was Heather, the youngest of us all, but none of us wanted to get her into trouble, so we all held back from telling. My mother needed certainty and devised a very cunning plan. She set her wily trap by saying, "I'm going to tell you an adult secret that no child knows: whenever children lie, their tongues turn green." Inspired by Pinocchio's wooden nose, Mom started with the oldest and worked her way down the line, telling each child to stick out his or her tongue. Everyone obliged but when it came to Heather's turn, she flatly refused. The game was over and my aunt rapidly marched her off for a smack and to have her apologise to the neighbour. Heather's story shows how children learn to lie to avoid punishment. However, telling lies isn't always done to avert punishment. Corruption is a form of deceit, dishonesty or unethical conduct used to one's personal benefit. Heather's deceit was of a very different magnitude. But people often lie to help and protect others. You might have lied about having had an affair to avoid shame and guilt but you might have done it to protect your partner from hurt. Are any of these forms of lies justified?
Traffic officials once stopped me at a checkpoint for a routine inspection and I knew that I was driving with an expired licence. I had recently bought the car and the dealership negligently never sent me all the paperwork. I secretly welcomed the occasion because I finally had the leverage I needed to get the vehicle's documentation sorted out. The cop came to the window and it soon became blatant that he wanted a bribe in lieu of issuing a fine. "You are an honest man," he said, "If you help me with some cash for lunch, you won't have to face a charge against your name." "Yes, I am an honest man but I won't be one if I give you the bribe so you must do what you need to do." He was regrettably, too lazy to bother writing out the ticket and waved me on and I lacked the leverage I'd hoped for to secure the documentation.
The phrase, "the truth, the truth and nothing but the truth," comes from Anglo-Saxon times around AD 930 when an impartial third-party had to attest to the validity of a transaction concluded between two other people. The affirmation of truthfulness traces back to Roman times and there is an old theory that the Romans placed their right hands on their testicles and swore by them before giving testimony in court. You can just imagine a burly Roman with his hand under his toga as an official reads out the oath, which, in English means, "You hereby swear to tell the truth; for if you don't, you shall sacrifice your beloved testicles." Some think that this custom gave rise to the Latin word testis as in the word testimony but other reasonable etymology shows that in old Latin, testis originally meant "witness", or more literally, "the third person standing by" which the Anglo-Saxon history corroborates. Failure to tell the truth in a court of law results in the crime of perjury, a serious offence that tries to usurp or undermine the power of court.
Early Quakers were the first to object to the religious part of the oath, "so help me God." They also objected to the laying of hands upon the Bible because it violates what the apostle James wrote, "Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple 'Yes' or 'No.' Otherwise you will be condemned." Atheists also have a problem saying the last element of the oath and in many jurisdictions, the clause, "so help me God" is replaced with the words, "under the pains of perjury." In the predominantly Buddhist community of Cambodia, the oath is very different and reads, "If I'm home, let fire destroy my house for 800 incarnations; if I am in a boat, let me sink for 800 incarnations; when I become a ghost, let me eat bloodied pus or swim in boiling chilli oil for 800 incarnations."
When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue.
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
Oh, loves best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.
Marriage is both a legal framework and a holy commitment. Partners make these promises to each other, "I take thee to be my wedded partner to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for riches, for poorer, in sickness or health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part." They speak about the undulations in life in a committed context that lasts until death. But nowhere in these sweet affirmations is there any commitment to truth. I wonder why not? Imagine the ensuing argument, "You filthy scoundrel! You lied to me about having an affair." And the other person in the relationship replies, "Pardon my forthrightness, I promised to have and to hold you but I made no promise to tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
Herbert Taylor dreamt about the Four-Way Test when he set out to save an aluminium company from bankruptcy. Rotarians later adopted and used it as a world-wide moral code for personal and business relationships. Expressed in only twenty-four words it questions: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
We know why it is so hard for some to tell the truth. They lie to protect themselves and to protect others buy it seems endemic to lie to enrich oneself. But imagine what it would be like to always tell the truth, no matter the consequences. It's only a really strong character that can man-up and take it on the chin for what he's done. Is telling the truth generally possible in the human race? I doubt it. If you had taken an oath of truthfulness in your relationship vows, what do you think your partner would do if you declared something like this? "Love, there is something very important that I need to tell you. I shared a very intimate space with another person the other day. I was sure I could stop doing it but it happened again and I'm very worried that it might be something I cannot stop doing. There's an overwhelming inner urge for me to keep doing what I'm doing and I'm already seeking professional help to know how to understand it. I carry great pain in my heart for having to bring this news to you but it is the only honourable thing for me to do. I know that none of this is your choice, none of it is your fault and that I am the only person held accountable for the consequences of what I've done. I will honour every decision of yours to defend and protect what is right for you."
I thank Paul Ekman for writing his informative book, "Telling Lies — clues to deceit in the marketplace, politics and marriage." He is Professor of Psychology at the University of California and is an expert in the field of deceit and lie detection.