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The Science Of Lying

With guest host Anthony Brooks.

Why we lie. We’ll explore the science behind our deceptive ways

Honesty may be the best policy, but dishonesty and deception are part of being human. Presidents lie. And so do we all. We lie to cover up our mistakes but also to be polite — to uphold social norms. We lie to gain financial advantage but also to make people laugh. And while we are very good at lying, we are not so adept at detecting lies – which is a problem today in a world where fake news and social media are opening up a new frontier of deceit. This hour On Point: why we lie. — Anthony Brooks


Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, essayist and author of National Geographic piece titled “Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways.” (@yudhijit)

Tim Levine, professor and chair of communication studies, University of Alabama at Birmingham, who researches deception and how to detect it.

From The Reading List

National Geographic Magazine: Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways — “The history of humankind is strewn with crafty and seasoned liars like Hogue. Many are criminals who spin lies and weave deceptions to gain unjust rewards—as the financier Bernie Madoff did for years, duping investors out of billions of dollars until his Ponzi scheme collapsed. Some are politicians who lie to come to power or cling to it, as Richard Nixon famously did when he denied any role in the Watergate scandal.”

Scientific American: Living a Lie: We Deceive Ourselves to Better Deceive Others — “People mislead themselves all day long. We tell ourselves we’re smarter and better looking than our friends, that our political party can do no wrong, that we’re too busy to help a colleague. In 1976, in the foreword to Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, the biologist Robert Trivers floated a novel explanation for such self-serving biases: We dupe ourselves in order to deceive others, creating social advantage.”

The Hill: Decoding the science of lying— “It turns out that human beings are basically hard-wired to lie. We learn to lie just like we learn to walk and talk, with some researchers seeing the emergence of lies in children as a sign that cognitive growth is on track. We tell lies for every possible reason — to cover up mistakes, to gain a financial upper hand, to be polite, to be mean. Some people lie pathologically, ignoring or disregarding reality; others lie to themselves, creating false but comforting self-images. Teenagers tell the most lies, with six in 10 telling as many as five untruths a day. By the time we hit our 60s, just three in 10 of us tell that many whoppers.”

Lying To Protect Yourself, Physically And Emotionally

Many people lie to promote themselves, or even to make others feel better. But caller Michael in Fort Lauderdale, FL, offered a different perspective: he learned to lie for his own survival. This is his story:

“I realized that I was gay when I was 9. But I also knew that I needed to lie about it. I needed to deceive people, not only for my emotional safety, but sometimes my physical safety. I didn’t want to go to hell. And I just grew up, that lying was the easier path. That lead to cheating, lead to plagiarizing at college, leaving from relationship to relationship because I didn’t know what emotional honesty was. What’s the science behind how to move a habitual liar — that’s not lying for any fault of their own — into a healthy place?”

Our guest Yudhijit Bhattacharjee offered a response:

“That’s a profound question, and I’m sorry, Michael, that you’ve had to endure all of these troubles since childhood. But I think, there’s a little section in the piece that talks about how small lies can become a gateway to bigger lies, and so I think I understand what Michael is saying when he says that, that habit of lying to keep himself safe from childhood on, sort of led him to tell other lies. I don’t have a good answer as to how you can take a person like that and then dial back their lying habit, but I guess there might be support groups out there of people who are just habitual liars and want to get better and don’t want to reflexively tell lies. But there’s no evidence that there’s really a condition called ‘habitual lying,’ or ‘pathological lying,’ even though we use that term. There’s no mental illness that directly corresponds to lying all the time. So it may be more of a habit that forms over time, rather than a condition.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Learning to lie is a natural stage in child development.
(PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay)
Learning to lie is a natural stage in child development. (PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay)