The art of lying

by Livia Hirsch

Can you count how many times you’ve lied this week? Livia Hirsch investigates why we don’t always tell the truth.

Lying is a part of human nature. We do so close to twice a day according to research by Robert Feldman, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts. Many animals engage in deception, however, only humans are capable of misleading both themselves and others. Given how easily misinformation and falsehoods seem to be spreading currently, what motivates us to use deceit and what happens in the brain when we do so?

Much of the knowledge humans acquire over the course of their life comes from what others tell them. People place deep trust in human communication. Would mankind cease to exist knowing that its trust was broken or is lying part of our DNA?

Lying is a newly discovered phenomenon, yet humans have been doing so since the beginning of time. One of the main reasons? We want to protect our self-esteem which is intrinsically intertwined with social desirability. ‘Self-esteem is the ability to stand up for yourself and who you are,’ comments Jonas Roithmaier, a recent psychology graduate of the Catholic University of Eichstätt. ‘Lying is either based on manipulation, which is linked to high self-esteem and entails getting someone to do what you want. Or, it’s an indicator of social fear, which is a representation of low self-esteem where you force yourself to comply to someone else’s standards.’ This means that if someone believes their self-esteem is being threatened or they feel attacked there is a higher chance that they will lie.

Both men and women tend to use deceit in a fifth of their social exchanges that last longer than ten minutes.”

As stated, people tend to lie approximately twice a day. Both men and women tend to use deceit in a fifth of their social exchanges that last longer than ten minutes. During a week, one dupes about 30% of the people they interact with one-on-one. Then, there are relationships, such as those between teenagers and their parents, which breed deception. ‘Any social group that’s strong enough can actually promote lying. […] In groups, one usually sees themselves as better than others and family is the strongest type of social group we have,’ says Roithmaier. ‘As kids have to comply with their parents forced standards, the more independent they become the higher the chances this might lead to lying.’ A study conducted by researchers from multiple universities showcased how lying frequency grows during childhood, peaks in adolescence and then proceeds to decrease during adulthood.

Most children start lying at the age of three to four years old after they first begin to understand social norms, such as what is allowed and needs to be done for society, and learn to be empathetic.

‘Bandura’s theory of learned behaviour – which proposes that behaviour is acquired by observing and imitating others – proves that kids have role models. If younger generations start to lie from a younger age, then their role models are skewed,’ comments Roithmaier. Children’s role models are often a reflection of society as a whole.

“If younger generations start to lie from a younger age, then their role models are skewed.”

As for brain activity, when one utters a falsehood, the amygdala – the brain’s emotional and arousal center – will activate. The amygdala is part of the limbic system, the oldest section of the brain which is centered around emotions, behaviour and long-term memory, all crucial components of survival. Additionally, the prefrontal cortex – the region responsible for executive control which includes processes such as planning, regulating emotions and behaviour – will activate according to fMRI scans. The body will also release cortisol in response to heightened stress when lying.

When someone lies, the amygdala produces a negative feeling which acts as a negative reinforcer to deter people from continuously lying. But if they continue to do so, this response fades. This can lead to small lies transforming into something much bigger as the brain numbs to the negative pulses.

However, you can trick the brain into believing a lie. It can be fooled into creating a new visual if someone repeats it to themselves enough times.

As you can see, there is no simple answer as to why we lie. Yet, one thing is certain, it is a part of our nature. Roithmaier agrees but adds that ‘it is a damn shame for your psychological health to lie.’