What Psychologists Tell Us About Lying

What Psychologists Tell Us About Lying | Compulsive Lying Disorder

Just browsing around, I came across this article and started to consider what it had presented. It really didn’t have anything to say that I didn’t know. It just presents three of the theories behind compulsive lying and really lying in general. But it got me to thinking about the topic, which I have always found to be interesting. Figured I’d share some of my thoughts on the topic.

Findings of Wiseman’s research showed that 40% of three-year old who have just learnt to speak lie. Therefore, lying is a very interesting topic in psychology.

It is an interesting topic in psychology for many other reasons, but the fact that it seems inherent to our nature is a curious part of the behavior. There are many people who claim that they never lie, but research really leans in the direction that this isn’t true. It is highly unlikely that a person has never lied during their entire lives. But let’s start with a discussion of what lying is and what it’s not. Seems like we already know, but there are times when people disagree on this definition which may be why people honestly say that they never lie when others say that they have caught those same people telling lies.

From dictionary.com:

1. a
false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
2. something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture
3. an inaccurate or false statement
4. to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive
5. to express what is false; convey a false impression

Alright, if we work with this definition there are already some interesting things to point out. The first one being the 3rd definition offered: “an inaccurate or false statement.” All of us give inaccurate information unknowingly. You think your mother is home and say so to a friend, but turns out she is at work. By this definition, that’s a lie. Harsh definition. Most people don’t consider this a lie. Most people feel “deliberate intent to deceive” must be present as well as the inaccurate information.

But definition 2 is also interesting. This is one that does not require any verbal response or statement. Many people think of lying only a type of verbal communication, but that’s not the case. If you do not have children, but put a picture of you and a child on your office desk with the intention to imply that it is your child, you are lying. Wearing clothing to portray yourself in a manner that is not accurate is a lie. Driving an expensive car to imply that you are wealthier then you are is a lie.

Then there is the 5th definition. This includes lies of omission which are often not considered lies. When information is not given to “convey a false impression” this is a lie of omission. Telling someone you don’t know when you do is a lie. When someone asks what you want to do for the night out and you reply “I don’t care” when what you really mean is “I don’t care enough to fight or debate about it” is a lie. Because you are implying that you don’t have an opinion when you do. When remain silent on a topic when you have information that might change someone’s opinion in a direction you’d rather it not go; you’re lying. Most people consider this kind of behavior to be manipulative (and it is) but don’t consider it a type of lying.

The manner in which we go about deceiving each other is so complex and convoluted that it can be difficult to sort out what is pathological or harmful and what is a normal and functional part of daily life. Because the reality is that lying does serve a functional purpose in life. No good comes of telling every unattractive person you see that you find them unattractive. A lie of omission is good here because it maintains your interpersonal boundaries and prevents conflict. This is functional lying. Lies of omission are those that are most likely to be functional lies. When we dress well and plan for an interview with an intention to present ourselves in a light that will get us the job, we are conveying a false impression to some degree. This is understood on both sides and is functional lying.

Is it pathological or harmful to tell your mother that you like her cooking when you don’t? What about if you just avoid giving her your opinion entirely? These are methods of lying to her in an effort to avoid hurting her feelings. Is this wrong? Is this pathological? Part of what psychologists puzzle over is this question of “What is normal lying?” It is clear to all of us that there are people that have lying disorders and that lying has taken over or destroyed their relationships. But where is the line? Finding the answer to that is as complex as figuring out what lying is and why we do it.

That’s why this topic has been so heavily researched. But there are some hurdles to researching it. First, people often lie about their lying. It is socially frowned on, so people generally aren’t open about when they lie and why. Additionally, the way that people define lying varies so they might not be answering based on how you’re defining lying. So, even the research that tells us how to detect when someone is lying is suspect to me. Because at some point, the person has to confirm that they are lying or the researcher has to offer an opinion on whether or not the person is lying. I feel like most of the theories on lying are founded on logical analysis rather then on research.

One of the things I found annoying about this article is that it only talks about three of “the five contemporary perspectives” and that it spends most if its time on the biopsychologist perspective. And half the information discussed there was actually theory usually presented under evolutionary theory (which is not one of the 5 major perspectives). I don’t feel that the article really gave a balanced discussion of the topic, especially given the title. There are way more then five perspectives in psychology. It’s much more complex then that. However, most of psychological research is done under the perspective of one of the 5 major perspectives. I just think it is important to keep in mind that these are not the only perspectives out there. I’ll let you go look those up, if you’re interested. Or maybe I’ll make a post about it another time, but it’s not really the topic of this post. I just wanted to point out that this article had a major limitation in it’s discussion.

The biopsychologist perspective is one of the five contemporary perspectives. They focus on how our genes, hormones, and nervous system interact with our environment to influence learning, personality, memory, motivation ,emotions and coping techniques.( Smith et al. , 2003). The biopsychologist would explain lying in terms of the bodily structures and biochemical process that causes the behavior of lying.

Biopsychology views humans much like machines. We behave based upon the programming of our genes and the chemical make up of our bodies. This is as perspective that has heavy sway in our culture currently. You’ll hear people talking about how mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain when there may or may not be research to support those claims. It is simply accepted in our current culture that we are, at least in part, a product of the function of our bodies.

They would say that we lie because our brain tells us that we need to lie. They would explain why we lie due to the command of our brain, and that the element of lying is coded in our genetic codes. Any organism that wants to survive in this world will need to lie, therefore the ability of lying is coded into our genetics and passed down in the gene pool to make sure homo-sapiens keep on surviving in this world. This school of psychologists would say that lying is a basic necessity to keep staying alive.

This is from evolutionary theory, which is closely related to biopsychology, but they are separate things. Biopsychology doesn’t get into why our bodies are built the way that they are, but focus on the way our biology effects our behavior. Both evolutionary theory and biopsychology suggest that we are driven by our bodies and thus lying is inherent in who we are. This suggests a certain lack of control that I will admit has always put a bad taste in my mouth. However, having OCD and been in a position of feeling that lack of control over my behavior I cannot deny the possibility.

If lying is part of our genetic makeup and has been selected for through evolution: it has survival value. So, what is that value? How did lying make us more fit? It is an interesting question to consider. Especially when we see that other animals also lie. That does suggest that there is some evolutionary value to lying; a value that transcends species. It is difficult to see the way that lying would make it more likely for an animal  to survive and thus be more likely to breed. But that seems to be the case. Is it possible then for lying to be pathological? And again, if so: where is that line?

Basically the behaviorists study the stimuli and response conditioning of a person’s behavior. They would emphasize a scientific analysis of lying. They study why does a person lie as an effect of learning, as influence of external rewards and as a mechanistic view of lying as human nature.

The biopsychologists sit strongly in the nature camp while the behavioral psychologists sit strongly in the nurture camp. Behavioral psychologists believe that lying comes about from conditioning. This theory poses that when we lie, we are rewarded and thus are motivated to lie again. Under this theory, lying can become a compulsive reaction.

These psychologists would describe and explain human lying as a process, which is stimulated by a reward. They would say that just as as an animal, we humans lie because we are expecting a reward. The habit of lying became part of our lives because when we lie, we get rewarded (we got something we want, desirable). This would explain why some people have got into the bad habit of compulsive lying and why some others don’t engage in this habit. The reason why some people lie is because they got rewarded before when they did so, and therefore they are conditioned to do so if they met with the situation again. Their choice between to lie and to tell the truth would be to lie because for them , telling the truth would not be beneficial to them whereas lying gives them a reward.

From the cognitive perspective, psychologists examines how we process, store and use information and how this information influences what we attend to perceive, learn, remember believe and feel.( Smith et al. , 2003) The cognitive psychologists focus on the thoughts and mental processes of a person when lying. They have the idea of human behavior (in this context, lying) cannot be fully understand without examination how people acquire, store and process information. These psychologists focus on what is the mind thinking of when a person is lying.

From cognitive psychology perspective, lying is a dynamic mental process that is composed of both thoughts we are aware of and those that we are not. There is a trigger that leads a person to lie and examining those triggers is a focus of study. Perception of the act of lying is also viewed as important because it helps answer the questions fundamental to this issue such as “what is a lie?” and “why do people lie?” When treating someone for pathological lying, changing their perception of lying is at the core of treatment. Without changing their views and perceptions, it is unlikely that their behaviors will change.

The psychoanalytical perspective is a field started by Sigmund Freud. This view is also known as the psychodynamic view. This viewpoint stresses the influence of unconsciousness fears, desires and motivations on thoughts, behaviors and the development of personality traits and problems later in lives.( Smith et al. , 2003)

The psychoanalytical perspective poses that the unconscious brain drives behaviors. This theory states that we are driven by experiences that have marked and shaped us, usually those in our childhood. I honestly don’t know many psychologists that work under this theory and I’m not going to discuss it in any detail because I myself am not thoroughly familiar with it. I personally find it unlikely that all my behaviors are driven by my past experiences from my childhood. Influenced? Sure. But not driven.

Alright, my last comment on this article is that it claims it is about compulsive lying, but it never talks about pathological lying of any kind. This article is a discussion of some of the theories explaining lying. It does not talk about compulsive lying which is something I most likely will discuss in another blog post because this one is getting rather long and I find the topic interesting. Compulsive behaviors of any kind, including lying, are part of obsessive compulsive disorder (if they meet diagnostic criteria). When one discusses compulsive lying, it is really a discussion of OCD.

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Posted on February 27, 2017, in mental health and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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