The older I get, the more an inveterate, unrepentant liar I find myself becoming. The mechanism is essentially a simple one: the lies I tell tend to offer ready relief for whatever tension I’m feeling at the moment. Take just the other day – I was at the DMV and the examiner asked me how much I weighed. I lied. Last week, a student I like asked me what I thought of a paper I know he put a lot of time and energy into. I lied. Thursday, Valerie, the postal clerk here in Langley, asked me if the package I was sending contained anything other than books. Once again, I lied.
Lies often work much faster and easier than telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Truth is often complex, subjective and situational. And the truth, researchers are finding, turns out to be very plastic, indeed. People who know me and love me in all my pseudology, make it easy for me to often tell the truth spontaneously. As well as to “nuance” it. They, and I, have great admiration for creatively, well-crafted spin. When Big Money is involved – the kind that makes New Jersey rabbis and mayors take graft, and Dominican baseball prospects lie about their age to the New York Yankees (I’m a San Francisco Giant’s fan) – liars seem to be coming out of the woodwork.
Well Trained for the Role
Lying is something I was trained to do well as a kid, by parents, teachers and adults who didn’t really want to hear the truth, and who regularly punished anyone who unvarnished it. This has turned out to be a pretty big problem in world culture, as the current international economic crisis would seem to bear out. (Not surprisingly, Joe Cassano, the man who “crashed the world” was reportedly a great punisher of truth-tellers).
Getting yelled at or punished for truth-telling it turns out can’t compete with the relief from stress and tension that lying provides in the moment. I think it would have been better to have been offered an environment where it was safe to tell hard truths, and then also be taught how to manage the adrenaline and cortisol that is often triggered by people like Tom Cruise, in A Few Good Men, who can’t really handle them. This would require parents, teachers and such being skilled at managing their own emotional reactivity, of course.
The Hard Work of Lying
The recent technological ability to view blood flow in people’s brains as they lie, is causing great concern in the neurosciences. The ethics of being able to accurately read people’s minds and things like that. Such concerns might be needlessly misplaced – lying should be considered a given, since many of us lie … a lot. By omission and commission. Willfully and otherwise. Consciously and unconsciously, even though we might not readily tell the truth about it. Lying, like forgetting, might be an important and necessary neurophysiological regulatory mechanism. Recent research by Joshua Greene has come up with the “Will” and “Grace” theory of why people lie or don’t when it’s in their best interest to do so. Lying is hard work, and us natural born liars – or should I say early-conditioned liars – apparently really have to labor hard at telling the truth:
“When honest people leave money on the table, you don’t see anything special or extra going on in their brains at all,” says Greene. “Whereas, when dishonest people leave money on the table, that’s when you see the most robust control network activation.”
To Lie or Forget, That is the Question
But can simply not remembering things accurately be considered lying, or are intent and self-concern necessary additional criteria? In a study often cited in the Recovered Memory literature, after incidents of sexual abuse were publicly reported at an inner-city hospital, thirty-eight percent (!) of the women Linda Williams interviewed 17 years later, reported no recollection of the incident. What might be the brain mechanisms for this occurrence? Repression? Sublimation? Traumatic Dissociation? Whatever it is, to me it invites further study. Knowing what’s going on neurologically may help us more skillfully address it.
One of the most well-known longitudinal studies in modern psychology is George Vaillant’s Harvard happiness study. Formally known as the Grant Study, for nearly 72 years researchers have regularly checked in on 268 men through career, marriage, divorce, parenthood, grandparenthood and old age. Half of those alive are currently in their 80’s. What’s most interesting is how wrong many of them turned out to be in recalling significant events from their past, as distortion, denial and sublimation twisted memories into a pretzel of illusory personal history.
Take for example, Case No. 218 in the Grant Study, who in one interview expresses healthy regrets for roads not taken, yet subsequently neither has nor recalls any regrets at all. Or the person who at 30 yearned to become a doctor, but in later years completely denied any such desire. “As is well known,” Vaillant reminds us, “with the passage of years, old wars become more adventurous and less dangerous.” Forgetting? Or lying? It all looks like Mad Cow to me.
So, let’s see now. In this piece, as I count them up, I’ve managed to tell seven lies myself! Not too shabby.