Jun 12, 2017 12:34 PM EDT
My five-year-old has recently discovered lying. She's not quite on the Bernie Madoff level yet, I haven't given her any money to invest, but she lies about things that create an advantage for her in her world.
"Did you brush your teeth?" I ask.
"Yes," she replies.
I check the toothbrush. It is bone dry. She has lied to me. Why? So she doesn't have to brush her teeth. Her lie, if believed, has presented her a clear advantage. The ability to escape the mundane ritual of brushing her teeth.
At first I was very concerned with this behavior. Lying could lead to all sorts of deception and is not a habit to be encouraged. I had visions of 30 years down the road seeing her name come up on the TV show American Greed with a deep voice narrating her various schemes to rob senior citizens of their social security checks. I did some research on lying. As it turns out, nearly all humans lie, and we learn to do this at the early age of 2-5 years old. According to Kang Lee, a Psychologist at The University of Toronto, it is actually a sign that your brain is developing well at a cognitive level.
Not long after the development of language, humans began to lie.
"Lying is so easy compared to other ways of gaining power," notes Harvard University ethicist Sissela Bok. "It's much easier to lie to get someone else's money or power than it is to hit them over the head or rob a bank."
This makes evolutionary sense. Not all of us are the biggest and strongest. We couldn't achieve what we wanted by sheer force. Some of us had to be more deceptive to gain power and advantage. Obviously this worked, or we would have evolved into a species of super-honest brutes. Scientists say that lying is part of our human nature. We lie for all sorts of reasons. We lie to get what we want. We lie to gain power or control or money. We lie to uphold the way in which people perceive us. Sometimes we lie for no reason at all. The reason for some lies are not even known to the liar.
According to a study by Tim Levine done in 2016 at the Journal for Intercultural Communication Research, about 7 percent of the lies we tell have a motive that is unknown even to the liar. The largest percentage of lies humans tell take up 22 percent of out total lies and are told to cover up a mistake or misdeed. President Nixon denying he had any part in the Watergate scandal comes readily to mind. 16 percent of the lies we tell are to gain financial benefits. Bernie Madoff deceiving investors into a Ponzi scheme is a perfect example. Although his lies could also be categorized in the 15% of lies we tell to gain prestige and bring benefits beyond money. 8 percent of the lies we tell are to form a positive self impression, like me telling you that I can dunk a basketball. This is a lie easily told since I am a writer, and you can't see that I am only 5 feet and 9 inches tall. Ok, I am lying. I'm 5 foot 8. Okay, you got me. I'm actually 5 ft 7 and a half to be perfectly honest.
Only 5 percent of the lies we tell are for altruistic reasons. And 5 percent are for humor. I guess that's why there isn't a superhero named "lying man." In general, we only lie for ourselves. Lying to help others isn't an act we normally partake in.
The other part of the equation is that we are hardwired to be gullible. We are programmed to trust. Th's makes it easier for liars to be believed. Levine called this the "truth default theory." We get much of our information about the world from other people. Therefore we are predisposed to believing what we hear.
"If you say to someone, 'I am a pilot,' they are not sitting there thinking: 'Maybe he's not a pilot. Why would he say he's a pilot?' They don't think that way," says Frank Abagnale, Jr., a security consultant and former con-man who inspired the 2002 movie Catch Me if You Can.
This is why scams work. We are not searching for a lie.
Robert Feldman, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, calls that the liar's advantage. "People are not expecting lies, people are not searching for lies," he says, "and a lot of the time, people want to hear what they are hearing."
This also makes it easier for mis-information to be passed off as truth. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in today's world of social media. If you are inclined to believe the sources that you trust, it is likely that you are going to subscribe to certain theories about climate change or evolution based on the idea that the sources that are giving you the information are sources that you have trusted in the past. We hear what we want to hear. We believe what we want to believe.
This makes subjects like climate change very difficult to argue with an effectiveness. Despite the fact that over the past decade, countless studies have shown that 97 percent of scientists believe that climate change is real and that it is being caused by humans, the percentage of people who do not believe this has not decreased over the past decade. This is because there are several sources, mostly on the internet, that argue against the science. Political forces and special interests promote these sources despite their dubious claims and the people who follow these politicians or special interests are inclined to believe them.
Why wouldn't they? You believe who you trust and you hear what you want to hear. It's a liar's world and we all have to live in it.
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