Liar, Liar

EMILIE FERRIS looks at our tendency to lie, and our reasons behind fibbing.

Chocolate family lie lying Men psychology women

Why do we lie? What is it in our innate human psychology that causes us to fib in the way that we do, with enormously embarrassing consequences if we’re found out? According to some studies, women lie mostly out of fear, to prevent embarrassment or to make people feel better about themselves. How lovely. Men, conversely, lie out of convenience, if it means avoiding an awkward confrontation or to make themselves appear more important in the workplace. If we take an excruciating example at random; say, my family, then we might be able to view the intricacies of the human mind at work in some of the most startling and some might say perverse ways.

A typical contentious issue in the house might be that of who ate the expensive gift-wrapped chocolates imported from Ghana, intended either as a present for some pretentious social exchange, or given as a reward for some pretentious social exchange, which I’m certain I didn’t enjoy. Usually, such things out on display disappear pretty quickly in the house, often as a result of blatant greed or sometimes spite. Most of the time, it’s my sister’s fault and, being only nine (a mistake, obviously) she has not yet learnt how to cover herself from all angles and lie properly.

The exchange is often thus;

Mother: Who ate all the chocolates that I was going to give the (insert ridiculously long family name here) for dinner on Friday?

Everyone: Err. Not me.

My sister: It DEFINITELY wasn’t me. It really wasn’t me. I promise you it wasn’t me. I can’t BELIEVE that you think it’s me. IT WAS ROBERT! HE DID IT AND I KNOW HE DID. I HATE YOU.

Everyone: No one said it was you. It’s obviously you.

It’s usually her, though. My brother is better.

Mother: Who ate all the chocolates I was saving for tonight?

Brother: Dunno.

Mother: Was it you?

Brother:  Nope.

Mother: Are you sure?

Brother: Yep.

Let’s look at those two exchanges closely. In the first instance, my sister makes the blatant mistake of saying too much, too quickly. She seems suspicious. Instantly, her denial of the crime appears questionable, even guarded. Coupled with the fact that, based on prior knowledge, she’s greedy and most certainly DID IT. In the second exchange, my brother employs a typically masculine line of defence. Note the shortness of his responses, and his almost belligerent attitude (he is belligerent). This tactic, saying very little, reduces the unbelievable nature of the lie. The fact that he does not offer any more information than is strictly necessary, does not offer alternative suspects who may be culpable, and keeps to his story, not deviating from the monosyllables, automatically makes him more believable.  Any more complexities than this and we’ll have to send for Poirot.

A further example of lying is perfectly indicated in a conversation between my parents, typically leaving to go out somewhere where people are dressed nicely.

Father: Where’s my blue shirt?

Mother: Hm?

Father: My blue shirt, the short sleeved one.

Mother: I don’t know, I haven’t seen it. Oh, why don’t you wear this one instead?

Father: I’m not wearing that. It has flowers on it.

Mother: But you always wear it.

Father: I never wear it.

Mother: You wore it for the wedding last week.

Father: No, Michelle, I didn’t-

Mother: Don’t be ridiculous.

Do you see what she did there? It’s actually fascinating. This is a different sort of lie from the defensive ones employed earlier by my siblings. This is the lie which has an aim. In this case, to convince my father that he has owned this shirt, which my mother has just bought, removed the tags from and put in his cupboard, for years. Thus, this is the lie of achievement, the one which allows you to inch ever closer to a goal. How insidious. Of course, many people employ this on a much larger scale than my mother dressing my father ridiculously. Mainly men, interestingly enough. As discussed earlier, men tend to lie in order to promote certain good qualities about themselves, particularly at work. People lie on their CVs in order to amplify certain skills which they do not have, vying with one another for promotions, and men tend to boast about their physical skills, caveman style, in the hope that it might endear them to others. It doesn’t. However, lying has become a normal, nay, essential facet of human nature. If the devil is purported to be the Father of the Lie, then we are all his guilty sons.