The why of the lie

Everybody lies. It is something that we do from being a small child right the way through our lives. We adapt our behaviours and speech to get something we want. As we move towards adulthood we become more and more adept at deception, and as a result, more frequent as liars.
We are even taught to lie and lied to by our parents. “When Auntie Violet gives you your birthday present look happy and say you like it very much”; “If you don’t stop misbehaving the policeman will come and take you away.”; “Father Christmas is watching you and if you are bad you will not get any presents for Christmas.”

Some studies have indicated that the average person can lie around eight times in a twenty minute conversation, but how do we define a lie?

Ekman defines as lie as “A deliberate attempt to mislead without prior consent.” Breaking this down gives some clarity. A deliberate attempt – There has to be intent to deceive. If we repeat a lie told to us by someone else does it still remain a lie? Incorrect information passed on is not a lie, unless the person passing that information on is aware that it is inaccurate. If you believe the information you are passing on, there is no intent to deceive.
Actor and magicians lie to us all the time. The actor pretends to be someone he or she is not. This is surely a lie. They know they are not the person they are portraying, and they are doing their best to make us believe they are. This is where consent comes in. The actor calls it “suspension of disbelief.” The very act of going to a play, watching a movie, or seeing a stage magician is implied consent to be deceived. The audience all know that Anthony Hopkins is not Hannibal Lecter but we accept him in that role.

What about little white lies.
“How are you today?”
“I’m fine, thanks”

We tell this type of lie all the time and there is always something of consent to be deceived about them. This question is a social lubricant allowing the smooth transition of a social interaction. If we translate that question and answer into what it really means:
“I am asking you how you are, but I don’t actually want to know, I am just engaging conversation or being polite to reinforce our interactions or move this conversation forward to the real subject.”
“I know you are being social and have no interest in my well being at the moment, so I will lie to you so we can move this conversation forward or accept that you are somebody that I will engage with socially at a later time.”

Two people just lied to each other and probably didn’t even consider that they were lies. But what would happen if you change the context. What if the question is being asked by a Psychiatrist and the respondent is a patient on suicide watch? There would be no implied consent for deception, indeed a failure to pick up on a lie in this case could detrimental to the well being of the patient.

Next time you are asked a question examine your response. Have you just told a lie, and what was the motive for doing so? Social lubrication, personal gain, avoiding punishment or to protect someone else?

In my area of expertise, it is not when someone lies, it is why?