How often do you lie? If your answer is ‘hardly ever’, I reckon you’re lying right now. We all lie. Often our lies are harmless and may have been told for a good reason. But the point is, we all say things that aren’t true. Why is lying so common and at what age do we begin to tell fibs?
Secrets and Lies
Lying is more common than you might think. According to one study, most of us lie at least once or twice a day. Think of any conversation you had during the past week that lasted 10 minutes or more: if you’re like most people, there’s a one-in-five chance you lied during that conversation. During one week, you are likely to deceive nearly one-third of the people you interact with one-on-one. Some relationships involve more lying than others. For example, university students have been found to lie to their mothers in half of all conversations. And it’s worth pointing out social pleasantries like ‘I’m well thanks’ or ‘it’s no trouble’ didn’t count as lies in this research.
Lies are also common in romantic relationships. Eighty-five percent of university student couples said one or both partners had lied about past relationships. And dating couples lie in about a third of their interactions – probably more than they lie to other people. But the lies we tell to the people closest to us are more likely to be discovered. It’s also worth pointing out that people in all cultures lie, we just lie about different things and in different ways. And lying isn’t peculiar to humans. Birds do it, butterflies do it, orchids do it, apes and monkeys do it, even dolphins deceive.
Liar, liar, pants on fire
Like The Boy who Cried Wolf, any parent will attest to the fact kids lie. We wish they didn’t and we tell them it’s the wrong thing to do, but still kids lie. And they start early. Research shows even 6-month olds will ‘fake cry’ to get attention when nothing is wrong. And children learn to lie, both to protect themselves and help others, from the age of two. At two, kids lie to deny wrongdoing and escape punishment: I didn’t have any of the cake, says the kid with chocolate icing all over her mouth. Two and three-year olds tend to be very unconvincing liars. When asked about their behaviour, most will confess.
But by three, kids have also learned to tell ‘white’ lies like thanking someone for a present they don’t like or want. These are important social skills to learn, but learning to lie is a complex business. In order to lie, a child has to understand the fact that other people have their own separate, and potentially very different, thoughts. It is the process of learning to consider what other people think and feel that enables a child not only to lie, but lie convincingly.
Even if you think you’re good at picking up when your kid is lying to you, chances are you’re not. Studies of more than 10,000 kids and adults found adults correctly identify lies less than half the time. That’s right – you might as well flip a coin. If you want your kid to tell the truth, research suggests you should do two things. First, reassure your child they won’t be punished for confessing. Second, explain that telling the truth will make them feel happier.
Lies, sweet little lies
We all lie to get what we want and avoid certain consequences. Lying is thought to be closely linked to self-esteem: as soon as we feel threatened, we’re tempted to concoct bigger and more complicated lies to protect ourselves. More often though, the lies we tell to protect ourselves are only small. Small lies allow us to still believe we are fundamentally honest people. We tell lies when we are short on time and need to quickly cover up, but also if we feel justified in doing so.
It turns out rather than being deceiving two-faced fakes, a lot of the lies we tell are designed to help others. Many of our lies are the result of us pretending to like someone or something more than we actually do in order to protect someone else’s feelings. These lies can be important parts of tact and politeness and as Jim Carrey showed us in Liar Liar, the world would definitely not be a happier place if we only ever told the absolute truth.
From little things, big things grow
We all lie and we start doing it when we’re very young. But why do most of us stick with garden-variety little lies, while others lie about big stuff? Research published last month suggests compulsive liars effectively train their brains to ignore the guilty feelings most of us experience when we lie. If you don’t feel guilty about lying, it’s not at all difficult to lie again. Remember the amygdala – the part of our brain linked to fear, pleasure and the ‘flight or flight’ response? Brain scans of people encouraged to lie repeatedly showed that the response in the amygdala decreased with repeated lies. Our brains become desensitised to lying: the more we lie, the easier it is to lie again and again. It’s a slippery slope.
Whether it’s evading taxes, being unfaithful, doping in sports, making up data or committing financial fraud, deceivers often recall how small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time” – Associate Professor Tali Sharot
Presumably then, lying less often should make it harder to lie. And trying to lie less may well be a challenge we should all embrace: research shows telling the truth when we are tempted to lie can significantly improve our physical and mental health. And that’s the truth.