Know More Why Do People Lie

“I always lie”, one of my patients said to me. What was I meant to believe? If they were telling the truth then they weren’t lying. Which meant they were lying when they said they always lie.

Since November 8th what is a lie has taken center stage in our country, perhaps in the world. Lying has always been part of who we are. We’ve all lied. And that’s the truth. Some lies are benign, like when we say something like “That dress looks great on you!” when it really doesn’t. We say a white lie like that to save someone’s self-respect.

But there are other lies designed to steal and not save: strategic lies calculated to deceive another person or group for personal gain. For example, Bernie Madoff created an exclusive investment fund for the ultra-wealthy. His brilliant investing seemed impermeable to the cyclical downs of the market. But Madoff was really brilliant at lying. His Ponzi scheme was revealed with the collapse of the economy in 2008: Madoff’s fund had lost 65 billion dollars. People lost millions, some their life savings. At the age of 71, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison. At his trial not a friend, family member, or other supporter had submitted any letter on behalf of Madoff’s character or contributions to the community.1 Society does not like liars. We have to be able to trust.

We call people who set out to strategically lie to us “con artists”, con being an abbreviation for confidence. The skilled con artist uses Theory of Mind with great cunning, instilling confidence and trust in their target. They manipulate human behavior to their gain. But the underlying feature with strategic lying is often more than money: it’s to gain or maintain influence and power.

Strategic lies are all over the internet, designed to entrap another person into giving money or divulging their secrets. You’ve seen them, hopefully laughed at them, and quickly deleted them; “I am in Portugal and need a kidney transplant. The medical cost is so much less here in Portugal, but my time is running out. Please send me money so I can get my kidney.” Or, “Congratulations, you have won the Lottery. Your check is waiting. Please send us your bank account information so we can deposit your winnings.” Or one of my current favorites, “This is the IRS with a warrant for your arrest for unpaid taxes.”

Strategic lies can be remarkably successful. According to a US government report on internet crime, Americans lost $198.4 million to Internet fraud in 2006.2 Internet scams stole $12.4 billion dollars in 20133, and in 2015 $21.84 billion was pick-pocketed from global credit card and debit card fraud4. Today the FBI even has a designated Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Our desire to be successful can be a double-edged sword, often exploited by people who specialize in tapping into our need to be valued and valuable. That is the message of most modern marketing and advertising- if you use our product you will be perceived as more valuable. The wish to be valued by others makes us ripe fruit to be deceived. Most of the world’s largest advertising agencies hire anthropologists to shed light on how the human mind ticks.

Buy this deodorant to be more accepted. Wear these clothes and you will be hot. Use this credit card and everyone will think you’re successful. We sure do care about what others think of us: as a nation we spend millions in the process of trying to influence others. Join this club and you will be special.

Right now it is hard to know who is lying, who is not lying, why those who lie are lying, and what does it mean to call someone who tells the truth a liar? Think about this from your own experience. Were you ever accused of doing something you knew you hadn’t? Taking a cookie, dissing a friend, cheating on a loved one, talking to the Russians, being accused of lying that someone was talking to the Russians. Who is telling the strategic lie? What does the liar want to gain? Or is it just a white lie to save face, or simply an alternative fact? We have always counted on the Press and their professional integrity to discern the truth. But even many of them are being called liars.

The uncertainty from this not knowing places us all at enormous risk: risk of becoming so afraid we divide into groups. Those who believe what we believe and those who don’t. Retreating into the safety of our perceived allies and suspecting anyone with a different perspective. Not knowing breeds fear and suspicion. People we never even noticed, people we once considered friends, can become potentially menacing and dangerous, threatening to subvert the basic foundation of our beliefs. We’ve seen this before throughout the centuries. Anyone who is not in our group is against us.

There is some deep evolutionary brain science behind these divisions, a topic I will discuss in a future blog. We need to know who to trust. Lying erodes trust. We are desperate to trust. This very desperation can make us irrational, impulsive, limbic.

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