Lately I've been thinking a lot about lying. More specifically, I've been thinking about the spectrum of lies we tell ourselves. For example: I thought I could write a column about deception in roughly 700 words. Silly me.
The more I got into research and conversations on this topic, the more I felt unsure about, well, everything. The next thing that popped in to my head were self-referential parodies: "You're lying to yourself if you think you can write," and so on. All doubts and fears aside, from the innocuous to the insidious, lying plays a role in all of our lives.
To strip ethics and emotion away for a moment, the science of lies is fascinating.
It's a skill (or a reflex) that — when done well — involves several advanced cognitive processes: understand the truth of a situation; decide on a lie that serves your purpose; understand what the other person will perceive as the truth; invent and deliver a believable lie accordingly and quickly. The best lies are those sprinkled with truth. Plausible, perhaps even enticing.
The ability to lie is concentrated in the prefrontal cortex, and studies show that lying effectively generally takes more effort than telling the truth. This is partly what makes children hilariously bad liars. Apparently, we are at our peak deception abilities between ages 18 and 29.
Of course, what we're talking about is lying within the general population, not necessarily pathological liars. That's a different story entirely.
As a writer and filmmaker, I joke that part of my job is "making things up." While that's not inaccurate, it's a simplification. When I write something that has no element of truth to it — whether emotional or experiential — it tends to ring hollow. I can tell. Readers can tell.
When we watch movies and read books, sometimes we want an escape. Sometimes we crave a reflection of something going on inside us. Regardless, we have to be able to attach to a component of truth in the fiction for it to be satisfying.
And yet we live in a world where the lines between truth and fiction are intentionally, aggressively blurred.
I wonder whether technologies like smartphones, the internet and social media have made it easier for us to lie to each other or more difficult for us to get away with it. Maybe both? I wonder what reality TV has done to our concept of what is actually, genuinely real. The American dream these days feels more tied to fame than freedom.
So what do we get out of lying? Time, energy, social lubrication, self-aggrandizement, self-worth. The lies we tell could go a number of ways. It could be as simple as saying "I'm on my way" when you're still putting your shoes on, or "I'm fine" when you're not OK. We have a social understanding that allows space for so-called white lies.
For some this extends to other circumstances, like omission of information, or even betrayal. We build justifications for our own deception. We're protecting someone. We're saving them the (insert: trouble/worry/pain/heartbreak/ etc.).
So how do we determine the role of deception in our lives, and how do we recognize it when it's harmful, not helpful? For most people, intentionally lying about something big is stressful. It's why people end up giving themselves away so often.
There is a difference between conscious lying, unconscious lying and survival lying.
Let's take cognitive dissonance. What happens when people are confronted with ideas, facts, or situations that challenge their perception of who they are? I see a couple options here.
Option 1: Process new information, confront your ego and preconceived notions, recognize and move past your biases and fold this information into a new view of the world, yourself and your relationship to everyone and everything. Challenging — and potentially painful.
Option 2: Preserve the world you have been living in, that has informed every aspect of how you've been living your life and how you perceive yourself. Protect your identity and let new information that might challenge this slide off you like water from a duck's back.
It's not difficult to understand the appeal of Option 2. We all struggle to know when we're truly lying to ourselves about one thing or another.
I'm not trying to make a judgment on the ability of humans to lie — it is something we do, for so many reasons — but maybe the less afraid we are to dig through the discomfort of truth, the more open we can be to allowing dissonance in our lives. Maybe we can even embrace it.