The Truth About Lies

The Truth About Lies

10 Jun 2019

It’s National Honesty Day today. Ok, it’s not it was 30th April!

While the above untruth points at a cultural calendar that gets a little silly – Deep Fried Clams Day on November 1st is trumped 24 hours later by Love your Lawyer Day – honesty is a fascinating subject.

Apparently the average person tells three lies a day. And sure, most lies are inconsequential fibs to drive social connections and get through the day - they're not Clinton-esque corkers about sexual relations with that woman.

But lies fall into four main categorisations - or reasons why we fib: 1) self-promotion, 2) self-protection, 3) to affect others (for reasons of cruelty or kindness).

And then there's the lies that baffle even their tellers. Number 4) no reason.

A cover story in the June 2017 issues of National Geographic stated that “scheming and dishonesty are part of what makes us human”. But lying isn't only human. Evolution has gifted manipulation strategies – such as camouflage – to the animal kingdom. And the reasons why animals lie easily fit in those same buckets of self-promotion, self-protection and affecting others.

Perhaps the fourth in that list is one key to where humans and animals differ. Where animals don't necessarily lie for irrational reasons, we humans do.

Teens the best liars

Lying shows age-specific quirks, too. Little ones lie less often and they tend to admit their untruths quicker. But as humans get older, our brains soak up devilish new tactics and techniques. Basically, we get better at lying as the years progress.

Does that mean that older folks are the most prolific liars? Not really. Scientists at the University of Amsterdam found that teenagers were able to lie best – in this case meaning quickest and most effectively. The same survey found that children between ages six and eight and adults over 60 were found to be the least dishonest age groups as well as the least skilled liars. Which is quite cute, really.

The lies we tell

One big lie we love telling in the UK is around drinking alcohol. According to The Daily Telegraph, one in four of us (25%) lie about how much we drink. Thinking about it, alco-lies easily fit in all four filing cabinets – three rational and one irrational – as above.
Our recent Let's Start Talking report went a step or two further, probing who exactly we tell our boozy-lies to. It turns out that moderate drinkers who stay, or at least claim to stay within the government-recommended booze limits, are more likely to lie about their drinking to a partner.

Moderate drinkers are also twice as likely than heavy drinkers (who drink more than the recommended 14 units per week) to lie about their drinking to a financial institution. Heavy drinkers save their lies not for partners or banks but the GP: a whopping one in three (32%) admit as much.

One caveat here is that the validity of survey questions depend on respondents telling the truth. If they don't then the marketing and PR are doomed.

Truths about lies

Anyway, the above gives a little as to what we lie about, but how we lie is just as interesting. For example, people are more likely to lie on email versus pen and paper or when conversing out loud. Email is about the worst platform for pushing lies, most likely because we have time to pick and hone and drive our words towards a considered purpose or outcome.

In terms of detecting lies, lot of myths/lies exist.

Polygraph (or 'lie-detector') tests excel in registering when a person sweats and when their heart-races … but this isn't cast-iron detection of untruths. Strap a sociopath into a polygraph and they tend to beat it, while fudging tests can be as simple as clenching your buttocks, fidgeting and holding your breath to simulate the effects of stress thus throwing doubt onto honest and dishonest answers alike.

Staying with lies in the law and order field, studies show that police officers are no better at identifying lies than your average Joe. Moreover, people's ability to spot lies and dishonesty gets poorer when they're in unfamiliar surroundings. Here, cops do much, much better. Most likely owing to their training and experience, police are adept in detecting deception and dishonesty in alien environments.

There's a lot more we could say about lies but we've got a burning building to attend to, and that's after meeting Iggy Pop for marmalade. Happy Honesty Day everyone, same time next year.


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