The Honest Reason We Tell Lies

Cross my heart and hope to die.

01/10/2016 8:25 AM AEST | Updated 01/10/2016 9:10 AM AEST
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I nose why you tell lies.

We all lie sometimes, and yet we all think of ourselves as fundamentally honest people. We know people who have had affairs, blank and po-faced when confronted with their obvious deception. We know the story of the boy who cried wolf. Some people cheat on their taxes, or their insurance. Politicians and merchant bankers are our poster children for falsehood.

Is using Botox a lie? Is cosmetic enhancement deceitful? Is colouring your hair, or wearing make-up? Fakery is one thing, lying is another. We've all told numerous fibs, 'white' lies of convenience to defuse awkward situations, protect people, and spare the feelings of friends. But beneath all that, why do we really do it?

Evolutionary biology could give us one answer. Koko the gorilla, who can sign 1,000 English words, once famously pulled a kitchen sink out of the wall. When asked by his trainers what had happened, he signed: 'Cat did it.'

Is lying so innate that even our primate ancestors indulge? Did early humans also feel the need to tell lies? Many evolutionary psychologists claim that in the same way we learn to speak, walk and adapt to our culture's cues, we also learn to lie. It is hard-wired: both natural and universal, a precautionary defence for the ego. Children as young as 30 months have been shown to lie. Charles Darwin observed his son trying to deceive him at that very age.

Our rationalisations about lying are many and varied, but mostly riff on the old themes of Everybody's Doing It; It Makes Life Easier; or I Don't Want To Hurt Anyone's Feelings. Some lies serve to impress and enhance our status in society, others protect us from harm. Some are socially and culturally conditioned lies, like complimenting someone on their new clothing even if you don't like it, or laughing at your boss's jokes. Yet there are less cultural variations in lying than we would like to think. It's interesting to note that across the globe, people consider liars to be shifty, avoiding eye contact, which has been scientifically proven to be the opposite of what a liar will actually do.

We've all encountered people who believe their own lies. We've all known people who exaggerate unashamedly, gilding their anecdotes so fantastically that they couldn't be true in any sense. They have trouble distinguishing real life from their elaborate fantasies. But we indulge them. We don't call them out on their (relatively harmless) whoppers. Is it because we secretly empathise? Do we all fudge the truth to feel like we belong, to be accepted and loved?

Lying gave me a furtive thrill for a few wild years in my late teens; a frisson of pleasure when the pictures in my head were believed by others. I lied about where I'd been, who I'd been with, and what I'd done. I even lied to my therapist. There was power in it, a heady control. It was exactly like a drug: the more I did it, and got away with it, the more instinctive and inevitable it felt. I devoured Anaïs Nin's diaries -– that feted liar -– and felt a naïve, misguided kinship with her. Nin took her lying to the extremes of being a bigamist, travelling across the US regularly from east to west, sharing her time with her two blissfully ignorant husbands. She was pathological. I told myself that I wasn't.

Now I know that lying does indeed light up the pleasure and reward centres in the brain. Lie once, and it's guaranteed you will lie again. The lie produces an enormous initial response in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates executive control, and in the amygdala, which allows us to feel emotion and also understand the nuances of emotional behaviour in others.

As the lie gets bigger and bigger, the brain's response lessens. The brain adapts to the lie, almost believing it, and needing to lie once again to mimic that initial high.

The Abrahamic religions specifically target lying as being one of the deadly sins. Buddhists gently acknowledge that lying to oneself and others -– the opposite of 'clear-seeing' -– causes not only a muddied, polluted mind, but is the root of suffering as well. Yet lying has its purposes, especially in young children. It develops what psychologists call 'theory of mind,' the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires, thoughts and emotions that can be both similar and different to one's own. Surprisingly, lying in children can also help foster compassion, the imaginative trick of being able to put yourself in another's shoes and feel their pain as if it's happening to you.

Lying also seems to be part of the dark side of creativity. Original, creative thinkers are more dishonest than the rest of the population. This is apparently due to the fact that these thinkers can come up with way more justifications as to why they cheated or lied. Their myth-making is more sophisticated, their internal narratives more convincing.

As for me? Now grown older and wiser, lies don't hold out the promise of glamour anymore. I want to be the person others can rely on for honest feedback. I'm not interested in relationships that don't rest on a bedrock of authentic, at times brutal, truth-telling. And it goes both ways. The older I get, the more I find that my own capacity to see the entire reality of myself, with all my ugly bits, foibles and flaws, makes me more able to look into the eyes of truth.

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