By Doug Thomson
We all lie (don’t let your little kids know, they’ll figure it out soon enough) sort of.
Most of them aren’t big lies. In fact, for those with a conscience, it is almost impossible not to lie. We do it for a plethora of very good reasons and when you think about it for more than a second it isn’t surprising that few relationships could stand complete honesty.
Heck we even lie when we don’t know we are lying (hard to cast blame there) and we lie to ourselves. Now, some experts opine that only lies that, ‘make a difference’, whatever that means, count as lies.
We have other names for the other ones: fibs, little lies, half-truths, white lies, exaggeration and tarradiddle (I had never heard of that one before I looked it up, honestly, chuckle.)
But, most big lies start out as little ones, so to me they seem incredibly relevant. We also lie for a whole bunch of very bad reasons and it is that latter category that is most problematic.
In all my years counselling adolescents, I don’t know how often I heard parents say, “My child doesn’t lie,” and/or “I know when my children are lying.” Nice thought – however, a 2016 study from Brock University found that while 90 per cent of parents could tell when their children were telling the truth, only eight per cent could tell when their children were lying (not very impressive).
In fact, this was first studied and discussed by one Paul Ekman in 1986 and nothing in the research literature has changed a whole lot. Even trained border officials can only identify lies at slightly better than chance.
So, the ‘honest’ answer to those parents would have been, “Yes, they do” and “Not likely,” but that probably wouldn’t have worked in the situation, so a lie by omission was in order. See how easy it is.
Sometimes the problem is actually with ‘the truth’ – it sometimes can be a difficult thing to define. It isn’t at all problematic when we have a verifiable fact to measure against (like how many people attended an inauguration), but in other cases there can be loads of debate.
Add to that the ‘fact’ that a whole lot of people conflate truth with opinion or belief and the water can get pretty muddy. Conspiracy theories and pseudoscience are classic examples of how opinion or outright flimflammery can disguise itself as an objective reality.
There are lots of pretty nasty con-artists out there whose stock in trade is selling you nonsense. They lie and they make a lot of money doing it and all too often while gracing the covers of the tabloids.
But, why are we so easily conned? Well, remember we aren’t at all good at detecting lies. Really, flipping a coin is just as reliable.
Even the people apparently trained to do that difficult task are spectacularly unsuccessful at detecting untruths. So, why can we detect the truth and not lies? Well, there are a couple of possible answers to that little puzzle.
First, we may want to believe the lie. It may fit in with our beliefs or it feeds our opinions and as such is a reward.
Then we may be in need and want to believe in a miracle cure or validation. Indeed, some of the cruellest cons are those inflicted on the ill and vulnerable who are reaching out for hope.
Or, it might be our children and we don’t want to believe our kids could do ‘that’, combined, of course, with the fact that it might reflect badly on us. So, reinforcement, denial, and desperation all conspire against us in our quest for the truth.
Second, detecting the truth is easy. We simply have to believe. It requires absolutely no effort. On the other hand, detecting a lie requires work. We actually have to apply thought and effort to uncover a lie. We have to spend time with it and measure it against what we do know.
If we have no or little internal knowledge of the issues surrounding the statement in question, we have to seek further afield to find evidence that confirms or refutes the proposition. In short, processing statements for the lie is work that is not required if we just accept a statement at face value.
Then we have the example of something quite extreme in the person of Donald J. Trump, the current President of the United States of America. This man lies so continuously, brashly and outrageously that he simply wears everyone down.
The non-thinkers just believe; the political devotees want to believe his every word no matter how asinine, and do; and his critics simply can’t keep up with his mendacity. His barrage of untruths even work to establish new and much-debased norms for behaviour.
Surely, politicians of all stripes tell lies. Some of those lies even may be for national interests, but I suspect most are for political interests. Regardless, Donald J. Trump has set the bar very, very low in regard to the truth. Perhaps some of his lies are a distraction to push attention away from what he doesn’t want us to focus on, but wow!
As an aside, I must admit that Trump does puzzle me, because he lies about things he has no need to lie about, even as a distraction. It even goes beyond his continual need for approval and adulation so I wonder if he isn’t mocking his acolytes in a perverse way by pushing the envelope of credulity to prove to himself that they will believe anything he throws at them. I wonder.
So, the truth and lies are very interesting subjects for thought and study and there is a boatload of reliable books and scholarly articles out there for your edification. Just avoid the ones that offer you a sure-fire method for ferreting out the truth by looking for nervous ticks, eye movements, sweating or other so-called ‘tells’.
They just don’t work any better than flipping that coin.