If Edith Wharton lived in the Age of Innocence, surely we now live in the Age of Deception. Lying seems to have taken center stage in the lives of our political leaders. Last week former presidential candidate John Edwards was indicted for misappropriation of campaign funds and lying about it -- concealing his extramarital affair and his illegitimate child along the way. Another recent potential presidential candidate, Mark Sanford, governor of South Carolina, forfeited all chance at the Oval Office by having an affair with an Argentine woman and lying about the use of state funds to fly down to South America for romps with her while claiming he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Bodybuilder-turned movie star-turned governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated tabloid headlines three weeks ago with the disclosure of his illegitimate child.
Now follows New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose comical name and clumsy dishonesty have so enraged the U.S. media. Only three years earlier, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer had to resign after his hotel trysts with high-priced call girls came to light. About that same time, Bernard Madoff scammed $65 billion via his gargantuan Ponzi scheme and led a cavalcade of lesser Ponzi artists to the courts for cheating and lying. Sports stars routinely lie as well, whether about illegal performance-enhancing drug use or their own sexual conquests, as we learned with A-Rod and Tiger Woods. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has recently been charged with assaulting a maid in a Manhattan hotel room. He denies the charges and claims the sex was consensual. Is he lying? We don't know yet.
We do know that lying is pandemic. Let's look at some common lies about lying :
1. Lying is the exception not the rule.
This is completely wrong. Studies by several different researchers have shown that the number of lies we're told each day is anywhere from 20-200. To many that will seem shockingly high. Yet it isn't, in light of humans being ill suited to detect lies. The average human can detect a lie only 54% of the time. Why? Because when someone lies to us, we rarely find out about it immediately -- we learn much later that we were lied to and we don't remember if someone covered their mouth or shrugged their shoulders. We don't learn a lie's distinguishing features on the spot. When you hit a tennis ball out of the court you can instantly correct your serve... but deceptive behavior doesn't provide the same kind of learning curve.
To make matters worse, it turns out evolution is the equivalent of a kind of "arms race" in which our ability to detect deception must keep up with our ability to deceive. The better we get at detecting lies, the better the liars' stories become. The more sophisticated the stories, the more advanced the techniques required to detect them. We can spot this evolutionary progress almost hourly by opening our email. Even as we arm ourselves against the latest scams with firewalls and filters, spammers jump a step ahead with new tricks. Lying is the rule, not the exception.
2. Humans are a naturally honest species.
Not! Researchers have long known that the more intelligent the species, the more deceptive it is. By studying our close ancestors -- the primates -- a pair of Scottish researchers found that frequency of deception is directly proportional to the size of the neocortex -- in other words, the bigger the brain, the more frequent the use of deception. Koko, the gorilla who was taught sign language, once blamed her pet kitten for ripping a sink out of the wall. We are hard wired to become leaders of the pack.
3. America is opposed to lying.
Not really. White lies we embrace: telling a homely teenager he or she looks handsome or beautiful on prom night, telling children there's a tooth fairy in order to give them a consoling gift for a fractured smile -- but we can be deeply ambivalent about the truth. In diplomacy, withholding the whole truth is considered politesse. The courts have proved time and again that truth must be titrated. In the world of law, lying and deception are not only tolerated but have a form of legal sanction. Many people consider bilking an insurance company fair game. Others admire a falsified resume if it gains the perpetrator a highly sought after and lucrative position. "Massaging the numbers" in certain precincts of the accounting world is a highly esteemed skill, though a species of fraud. Criminals from Jesse James to Bonnie and Clyde to the Corleones are glorified, often praised for their nerve or chutzpah. Dishonest negotiators and duping salespersons are often lauded as "realists" and exalted for having "street smarts." Truth in our society often takes a back seat to securing gainful consequences.
4. Lying is hard to detect.
This is true only if you're untrained or predisposed to be a victim. Any lie is moot until it has a recipient who has agreed to believe it. A lie has no power whatsoever by its mere utterance. As Freud documented over a century ago, and as researchers have proved since, liars reveal their deceitfulness through physical or verbal "tells." Within the last week, Congressman Anthony Weiner gave himself away as a liar through multiple channels. He was as easy to read for trained liespotters as the average eye chart is to a fighter pilot. A few of his giveaways:
Diversion and refusal to answer
Interviewer: Did you send it or not?
Weiner: "If I was giving a speech to 45,000 people and someone in the back of the
room threw a pie or yelled out an insult, would I spend the next two
hours responding to that?"
Weiner: "Why don't you let me do the answers and you do the questions..."
Weiner: "...you know...I think...as far as I know...to the best of my knowledge..."
Flippant attitude when seriousness if called for
Weiner: "I passed Michele Bachmann today in the number of Twitter followers..."
Weiner smiled inappropriately during many interviews, revealing what interrogators refer to as "duping delight" -- a flash of a smile at the unconscious pleasure of "getting away with it."
Shifting blink rate, half shrugs, excessive grooming gestures, lip biting
Weiner displayed copious non-verbal tells such as these.
5. A liar won't look you in the eyes.
It turns out that liars often look you in the eye too much in order to appear authentic. They subscribe to the myth that liars will look away, look down, avoid direct eye contact when in fact honest people will only look others in the eye a comfortable 60% of the time. When someone stares you down, checks your face to see if you can read theirs, looks you in the eye in order to prove truthfulness, think again.
6. The powerful lie because they believe they're above the law.
The conventional wisdom is too simple -- that the powerful lie because they consider themselves above the law; that is, out of a belief in their own exceptionalism fueled by narcissism. Recall Lord Acton's chestnut that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yet that's too simplistic an explanation, even though studies show that the powerful are the best liars, partly because they're extroverts and extroverts lie better than introverts and persist in their lies longer.
Deception is complex. Though we hate to admit it, we all wish we were better husbands, better wives, richer, smarter, more powerful... the list goes on. Lying is an attempt to bridge that gap -- to connect our wishes and fantasies about how we wish ourselves and our world could be -- with what it really is.
There are as many reasons for lying as there are liars, but what's clear is there is usually an element of denial involved. Many liars deny their own sense of helplessness and vulnerability to themselves and others. One might go as far as to suggest that the twittering sexting Weiners of this world appear to even want to be caught at their escapades -- but it's dangerous to make further assumptions about the underlying causes.
7. Lying is only natural and it's harmless enough.
On the contrary, lying is a costly and serious business. Recent studies have shown that 1 in 5 employees is aware of fraud in their workplace, 25% of C suite executives falsify their resumes, half of all employees admit to undertaking one illegal or unethical action per year. Corporate fraud cost close to a trillion dollars last year. Honesty and integrity are the underpinnings of our democracy and of our rule of law. When politicians lie it erodes the very fabric of our republic .
Deception is serious business.
Pamela Meyer is the author of the book Liespotting. She is a Certified Fraud Examiner and a Harvard MBA. She blogs regularly at www.Liespotting.com