The true science behind lying: We’re geared that way

Lying causes humans emotional stress – yet psychologists say we are primed to deceive. Studies show there are clear biological benefits to dishonesty

How do you know if someone is lying
to you? What, exactly, are you supposed to look for?

Classic signs of someone lying
include shifty eyes, a wavering gaze, an inability to meet the stare of the
inquisitor when asked to “look at me straight and tell me you mean it”. Or,
perhaps, a sudden divergence from the graphic norm when the speaker’s vital
signs are being tracked by polygraph.

Whichever option you go for,
whatever result it happens to yield, it wouldn’t, ultimately, matter. The odds
are that it was wrong. In fact, statistically speaking, it was even more likely
to be wrong than if you had simply guessed at random, or had flipped a coin.

Even using the most advanced in
lie-detecting technology, identifying specific falsehoods can be a stretch. The
past decade has seen a number of truth-telling innovations.
Electroencephalograms monitor the electric activity of the brain. Thermal imaging
records one’s eye temperature (people’s eyes, it has been suggested, heat up
when they lie). MRI scans measure blood flow to the brain. But science has yet
to offer a method of specifically isolating deceptive (as opposed to, say,
nervous, cagey, or intensely focused) brain activity. Humans, when it comes to
separating fact from fiction, are fairly hopeless.

Easy to detect

“This is what makes it so easy for
people to be successful in their lies,” says Robert Feldman, professor of
psychology at the University of Massachusetts. “Some people are good liars and
some are bad, but they all use different signals. Unless you have known them
for a long time, it’s very difficult to tell if they are lying.”

Mr. Feldman has spent some 25 years
studying the science of deception. A fellow of both the American Psychological
Association and the Association for Psychological Science, he has authored
Liar: The Truth About Lying. In it, he argues that we all lie a lot of the
time. He introduces a number of psychological principles to explain this, the
most important of which is Liar’s Advantage, a tactical leg-up made possible
partly by the difficulty of lie detection and partly by our own inherent gullibility.

“We don’t expect to be lied to,” he
explains. “And often, people are telling us what we want to hear: that we are
doing a good job, or that we’ve been successful. The liar is trying to lie successfully
and we want to believe them, so we do. There are no obstacles.”

The instances of deception examined
in Liar range from the mundane (claiming to know the location of a town
anecdotally, so as to keep conversation moving) to the extraordinary (the
financially adept student setting up a Ponzi scheme before trying to donate
millions to his university). They are dotted across virtually every aspect of
modern life: from our relationship with ourselves, to our interpersonal
dealings, to the workplace, media and government.

A basic skill

Lying, says Mr. Feldman, is a basic
skill that we learn early on in life. Studies of secretly observed children
left alone in a room and forbidden to peek at a toy repeatedly show a
widespread ability, not to say willingness, to lie, from as young as three years
old. “It’s very surprising. They’re not particularly good at two or three, but
they still use it as a social tactic. By the time they are five or six they
actually become very good.”

Not only do we learn deception
early, and then hone our skill over time, but we use it as a means of achieving
success: social, professional, sexual. Indeed, in this respect, lying has come
to represent an important evolutionary tactic – one frequently replicated in
the world around us. “If you can fool a member of another species and it allows
you evade detection, or it allows you to evade being eaten, then that gives you
an advantage,” argues Mr. Feldman. 

Liar: The Truth About Lying is
published by Virgin Books