Professor's Book Dispels Myths about Lying, Deception

Released: 5-Aug-2009 5:00 AM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Citations The Liar in Your Life

Newswise — Robert Feldman, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and expert on lying, says much conventional wisdom about how and why people lie is wrong. He says lying is common and that people willingly accept and often welcome the lies they are told because it takes a lot of work to identify lying and liars. Feldman offers his insights into the world of lying in his new book, "The Liar in Your Life," published Aug. 3, 2009.

In the book " based on years of research " Feldman paints a portrait of life that is filled with lies and a social topography that makes us want to believe liars. He punctures some myths and says we're not only bad at detecting falsehoods, but in fact are strongly and unconsciously willing to believe other people's lies to make our lives easier. Feldman has some other revelations. For example, he says despite what most of us would like to believe, even young children lie, and they get better at it over time. Furthermore, parents consciously teach their children to lie. He also says it's very difficult to detect liars, even cops and detectives have trouble and can be easily fooled.

Feldman has spent much of his professional career conducting research on lying, and concludes we all frequently practice some form of deception, from outright falsehoods to "little white lies," in our daily lives. In the new interconnected world, he says use of e-mail and the Internet tends to weaken our existing standards of honesty, but also notes those standards aren't all that strong anyway.

"We're always managing what we say," Feldman says. "I've found that 'white lies' do have consequences and that the danger of telling them is they lead us toward being more dishonest."

Feldman says while it's probably not reasonable to expect people to stop lying, it is possible to monitor our own behavior to curtail the process as much as possible. "Honesty is still the best policy, but it's an imperfect policy and very hard to carry out," he says.

A key finding from Feldman's research is what he calls the "liar's advantage." This is made up of several components, some of which are that lying is easy and it's very hard to detect. Feldman says most people believe that an individual who averts his or her gaze, acts nervous and perspires is probably not telling the truth. Unfortunately, none of those activities is a valid clue as to whether a person is being truthful or lying, Feldman says. And neither is it accurate that someone who looks you straight in the eye will be telling the truth. He says polygraph testing is also a poor judge of whether someone is telling the truth. "Despite the beliefs of many law enforcement personnel," Feldman says, "The scientific research shows that polygraphs are unreliable at detecting lies."

There is also a truth bias at work that is also part of the "liar's advantage," Feldman says. This is where we learn to assume other people are telling the truth because it makes our lives simpler and more harmonious. That's why people aren't inclined to question many of the daily interactions they have with family members, or even strangers.

Feldman says he found that people don't recognize how common it is to tell a socially acceptable "white lie," or how easy it is for total strangers to begin twisting the truth even in a casual conversation. His research finds that strangers meeting face-to-face for the first time will tell lies three times within 10 minutes. If strangers meet through a computer conversation, he says, they're even more likely to lie, according to a new study reported in the book.


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