Why we should be impressed by lies, and other truths

"Your baby is adorable!"

People lie every day. They lie to each other (“I can’t come in today, I’m sick”). They lie to themselves (“I’m going to start eating healthy tomorrow”). One researcher even found that strangers meeting for the first time will lie three times within 10 minutes.

Of course, liars are always other people.

“We say we hate liars,” British author and journalist Ian Leslie says. “Politicians are liars or my ex-boyfriend is a liar. People say, ‘The only lies I tell are white lies.’ But if you ask them to define what a white lie is, it’s very hard to do. I have been struck by our mixed-up relationship with lying.”

His fascination with the idea led to extensive research for his latest book, Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit. “There’s an equilibrium in human society where it makes sense for us to tell the truth most of the time because if we didn’t, we couldn’t co-operate and we couldn’t get anything done. But it also makes sense for us to lie now and again. We just have to accept that.” Leslie spoke to the Post about the top three misconceptions – or lies we tell ourselves – about deception.

Misconception No. 1 We should be angry when our three-year-old kid lies

In the first years, children do not understand that what is in their mind is not in everyone else’s (they can’t conceive of you not enjoying a marathon of Toopy and Binoo). So, if your little one knocks over a lamp and tells you with a straight face that the wind must have blown it over, you should be impressed.

“If you talk to anyone who studies children and lying, they’ll say: ‘It’s an amazingly hard thing to do.’ It’s a tribute to the intelligence and creativity of a child to conceive of an alternative version of reality. They need the empathy to think about what others are thinking and feeling to come up with a good lie and then they need to be able to deliver it. They’re writers and performers of their own work.” Hey, like a George Clooney or Tom Hanks.

Misconception No. 2 Lying is a perversion of nature, a character flaw that needs to be resolved

Many species practise deception to survive. As examples, Leslie cites the Eastern Hognose snake, which will fake its own death when threatened or the female plover, which will lead intruders away from her young by flying off and faking an injured wing. Primates deceive cleverly and often; researchers found that the more deceptive the apes, the bigger the brains. The bigger the brain, the bigger our social network. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar was able to predict the group size of a species by the size of its neo-cortex. (Human beings should be able to cope with a social group of 150, he said. This was, of course, before Facebook.)

“The Machiavellian theory of intelligence says that we didn’t evolve our bigger brains in a battle with nature. … We had to get smart because we had to deal with the challenges of social life,” Leslie says. “We have bigger groups and therefore more competition for resources. The more you [compete], the more you have to work out who else is trying to trick you. “When we get better at deception, we get better at detecting deception. And it gets us better at understanding other human beings which requires a huge amount of mental fire power,” he says.

Misconception No. 3 You know how to spot a liar

“I thought along with everyone else that you could tell when someone is lying because they’re shifty and they fidget and their eyes move away from their face,” Leslie says. “But when you talk to people who have studied it, none of those things are true. Good liars look you straight in the eye and they tend to be very articulate. They have their stories thought through with a lot of details. It’s the opposite of the liars stereotype, which is why they get away with it.”

So to catch a liar, investigators might want to try something other than browbeating a suspect in a small room under an intense light bulb. “You make them shut up and go into their shell. The better thing to do is to get liars to talk. If they’re lying, they’re putting themselves under a lot of cognitive and emotional strain. The more strain they are under, the more likely they’re going to screw up and give themselves away.”

Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit ($21.95) is available from House of Anansi Press.

This article was originally published in the National Post on June 15, 2011

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