Note: In The Interpersonal Communication Book and Interpersonal Messages, I only touch on lying. It needs more attention and so I wrote this for the next edition of Interpersonal Messages and thought it might be of value to those using either of these interpersonal texts--or any others, of course.
Messages Can Deceive
It comes as no surprise that some messages are truthful and some are deceptive. Although we operate in interpersonal communication on the assumption that people tell the truth, some people do lie. In fact, many view lying as quite common whether in politics, business, or interpersonal relationships (Knapp, 2008; Amble, 2005). Lying also begets lying; when one person lies, the likelihood of the other person lying increases (Tyler, Feldman, Reichert, 2006). Furthermore, people like people who tell the truth more than they like people who lie. So, lying needs to be given some attention in any consideration of interpersonal communication.
Lying refers to the act of (1) sending messages (2) with the intention of giving another person information you believe to be false.
• Lying involves some kind of verbal and/or nonverbal message sending (and remember even the absence of facial expression or the absence of any verbal comment also communicates); it also requires reception by another person.
• The message must be sent to intentionally deceive. If you give false information to someone but you believe it to be true, then you haven’t lied. You do lie when you send information that you believe to be untrue and you intend to mislead the other person.
Not surprisingly, cultural differences exist with lying—in the way lying is defined and in the way lying is treated. For example, as children get older, Chinese and Taiwanese (but not Canadians) see lying about the good deeds that they do as positive (as we’d expect for cultures that emphasize modesty) but taking credit for these same good deeds is seen negatively (Lee, et al, 2001).
Some cultures consider lying to be more important than others—in one study, for example, European Americans considered lies less negatively than did Ecuadorians. Both, however, felt that lying to an outgroup was more acceptable than lying to members of the ingroup (Mealy, Stephan, & Urrutia, 2007).
The Types of Lies
Lies vary greatly in type; each lie seems a bit different from every other lie. Here is one useful system that classifies lies into four types (McGinley, 2001).
Pro-social Deception: To Achieve Some Good
These are lies that are designed to benefit the person lied to or lied about. For example, praising a person’s effort to give him or her more confidence or to tell someone they look great to simply make them feel good would be examples of pro-social lies.
Many of a culture’s myths are taught through what would normally be considered pro-social lies; for example, adults teach children about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. The theory, it would seem, is that these beliefs somehow benefit the child.
Some pro-social lies are expected and to not lie would be considered impolite. For example, it would be impolite to tell parents that their child is ugly (even if you firmly believe that the child is in fact ugly). The only polite course is to lie.
Still another type of pro-social lie is when you lie to someone who would harm others. So, you’d lie to an enemy or to someone intending to hurt another person. These lies too would be expected and to not lie would likely brand you as contributing to any harm done as a result of your telling the truth.
Not surprisingly children learn pro-social lying early in life and it remains the major type of lie children (and likely adults as well) tell (McGinley, 2001).
Self-Enhancement Deception: To Make Yourself Look Good
Not all self-enhancement involves deception. For example, the impression management strategies discussed earlier (pp. 00-00) may be used to simply highlight what is already true about you but that others may not see at first glance. And so, you might mention your accomplishments to establish your credibility. If these accomplishments are true, then this impression management effort is not deception.
At the same time, however, each of the impression management strategies may also involve self-enhancement deception. So, for example, you might mention your good grades but omit the poorer ones or you might recount you generous acts and omit any selfish ones or you might embellish or fabricate your competence, lie about your financial situation, or present yourself as a lot more successful than you really are.
Selfish Deception: To Protect Yourself
These lies are designed to protect yourself. Sometimes it’s something as simple as not answering the phone because you want some to do something else. In this case, no one really gets hurt. But, some selfish deception strategies may involve hurting others, for example, you might imply that you did most of the work for the report—protecting yourself but also hurting the reputation of your colleague. Or you might conceal certain facts to protect yourself—previous failed relationships, an unsavory family history, or being fired. Hiding an extra-relational affair is perhaps the classic example of selfish deception.
Sometimes selfish deception is designed to protect the relationship and so, for example, you might lie about a one-time infidelity to both protect yourself (and perhaps your partner as well) but also to protect and maintain the relationship.
Anti-social Deception: To Harm Someone
These lies are designed to hurt another person. For example, such lies might include spreading false rumors about someone you dislike or falsely accusing an opposing candidate of some wrongdoing (something you see regularly in political debates). Fighting parents may falsely accuse each other of a variety of wrongdoing to gain the affection and loyalty of the child. Falsely accusing another person of a wrong you did yourself would be perhaps the clearest example of anti-social deception.
How People Lie
As you can imagine people lie in various ways. One common deceptive message is the exaggeration where you, for example, lead people to believe that, for example, you earn more money than you do or that your grades are better than they are, or that your relationship is more satisfying than it really is.
Another deceptive message is the minimization. Instead of exaggerating the facts, here you minimize them. You can minimize your lack of money (we have more than enough), the importance of poor grades, or your relationship dissatisfaction.
Another common deceptive message is the simple substitution where you exchange the truth for a lie—for example, I wasn’t at the bar, I stopped in at Starbucks for coffee.
Still another is equivocation or being ambiguous and leading people to think something different from your intention. That outfit really is something, very interesting instead of Ugh!
And of course you can lie by omission, by not sending certain messages. So, when asked where did you go by your romantic partner, you might omit those things your partner would frown on and just include the positives.
The Behavior of Liars
One of the more interesting questions about lying is how do liars act. Do they act differently from those telling the truth? And, if they do act differently, how can we tell when someone is lying to us? These questions are not easy to answer and we are far from having complete answers to such questions. But, we have learned a great deal.
For example, after an examination of 120 research studies, the following behaviors were found to most often accompany lying DePaulo et al (2003).
1. Liars hold back. They speak more slowly (perhaps to monitor what they’re saying), take longer to respond to questions (again, perhaps monitoring their messages), and generally give less information and elaboration.
2. Liars make less sense. Liar’s messages contain more discrepancies; more inconsistencies.
3. Liars give a more negative impression. Generally, liars are seen as less willing to be cooperative, smile less than truth-tellers, and are more defensive.
4. Liars are tense. The tension may be revealed by their higher pitched voices and their excessive body movements.
It is very difficult to detect when a person is lying and when telling the truth. The hundreds of research studies conducted on this topic find that in most instances people judge lying accurately in less than 60% of the cases, only slightly better than chance (Knapp, 2008).
And there is some evidence to show that lie detection is even more difficult (that is, less accurate) in long-standing romantic relationships—the very relationships in which the most significant lying occurs (Guerrero, Andersen, & Afifi, 2007). One of the most important reasons for this is the truth bias. In most situations we assume that the person is telling the truth; as noted earlier in this chapter, we normally operate under the quality principle which assumes that what a person says is the truth. This truth bias is especially strong in long-term relationships where it’s simply expected that each person tells the truth. There are situations where there is a lie bias. For example, in prison where lying is so prevalent and where lie detection is a crucial survival skill, prisoners often operate with a lie bias and assume that what the speaker is saying is a lie (Knapp, 2008).
A related reason is that because of the truth bias, you may unconsciously avoid cues to lying in close relationships that you might easily notice at work, for example, simply as a kind of self-protection. After all, you wouldn’t want to think that your long-term relationship partner would lie to you.
Another reason that makes lie detection so difficult in close relationships is that the liar knows how to lie largely because he or she knows how you think and can therefore tailor lies that you’ll fall for. And, of course, the liar often has considerable time to rehearse the lie which generally makes lying more effective (that is, less easy to detect).
Nevertheless, there are some communication factors that seem to be more often associated with lying (Andersen, 2004; Leathers & Eaves, 2008). None of these, taken alone or in a group, is proof that a person is lying. Liars can be especially adept at learning to hide any signs that they might be lying. Nor is an absence of these features proof that the person is telling the truth. Generally, however, liars exhibit:
• greater pupil dilation and more eye blinks; more gaze aversion
• higher vocal pitch; voices sound as if they were under stress
• more errors and hesitations in their speech; they pause more and for longer periods of time;
• more hand, leg, and foot movements
• more self-touching movements, for example, touching their face or hair, and more object touching, for example, playing with a coffee cup or pen
In detecting lying be especially careful that you formulate any conclusions with a clear understanding that you can be wrong and that accusations of lying (especially when untrue but even when true) can often damage a relationship to the point where you may not be able to repair it. In addition keep in mind all the cautions and potential errors in perception discussed earlier; after all, lie detection is a part of person perception.
Not surprisingly, lies have ethical implications. In fact, one of the earliest cultural rules children are taught that lying is wrong. At the same time, children also learn that in some cases lying is effective—in gaining some reward or in avoiding some punishment.
Some pro-social, self-enhancement, and selfish deception lies are considered ethical (for example, publicly agreeing with someone you really disagree with to enable the person to save face or saying that someone will get well despite medical evidence to the contrary or simply bragging about your accomplishments). Some lies are considered not only ethical but required (for example, lying to protect someone from harm or telling the proud parents that their child is beautiful). Other lies (largely those in the anti-social category) are considered unethical (for example, lying to defraud investors or to falsely accuse someone).
However, a large group of lies are not that easy to classify as ethical or unethical. For example:
• Is it ethical to lie to get what you deserved but couldn’t get any other way? For example, would you lie to get a well-earned promotion or raise? Would it matter if you hurt a colleague’s chances of advancement in the process?
• Is it ethical to lie to your relationship partner to avoid a conflict and perhaps splitting up? In this situation would it be ethical to lie if the issue was a minor one (you were late for an appointment because you wanted to see the end of the football game) or a major one (say, continued infidelity)?
• Is it ethical to lie to get yourself out of an unpleasant situation? For example, would you lie to get out of an unwanted date, an extra office chore, or a boring conversation?
• Is it ethical to lie about the reasons for breaking up a relationship to make it easier for you and the other person? For example, would you conceal that you’ve fallen in love with another person (or that you’re simply bored with the relationship or that the physical attraction is gone) in your breakup speech?
• Is it ethical to exaggerate the consequences of an act in order to discourage it? For example, would you lie about the bad effects of marijuana in order to prevent your children or your students from using it?
• Is it ethical to lie about yourself in order to appear more appealing—for example, saying you were younger or richer or more honest than you really are? For example, would you lie in your profile on Facebook or MySpace or one a dating website to increase your chances of meeting someone really special?