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October 08, 1989|JOANN RODGERS | Rodgers is a Baltimore-based science writer who writes frequently on psychology and behavior

When young George Washington claimed he could not tell a lie, he (or whoever made up the story) was in fact fabricating one of history's all-time egregious whoppers.

Washington could lie, all right. And he did. Not, perhaps, to his father about hatcheting the family cherry tree but almost assuredly to his troops and his wife. And if he was like most of us, according to one study, he lied an average 13 times a week. "It's the honest truth," says UC Berkeley anthropologist Alan Dundes, "that telling lies--white lies, black lies, tall tales and fibs--is a universal human behavior."

The very language of lies suggests their widespread utility. We falsify, misstate, misrepresent, gloss over, disguise, color and varnish the truth. We doctor, cook, fake, adulterate, dress up, embroider, invent, trump, forge and, in political campaigns, spin it. We concoct, equivocate, quibble, trim, shuffle, prevaricate, perjure, mystify, dissemble, evade, trick, exaggerate, beguile, double-tongue and cant, too. Psychoanalysts have even invented the term "Life Lie," a life story we tell on airplanes or psychiatrists couches. These stories integrate lies that protect people's psyches so convincingly that the tellers believe them.

Lying is not "good," of course, at least not in the common understanding of the word. Any 4-year-old in Sunday school knows it's a sin, and simple reasoning tells us that it undermines the trust on which all relationships rest.

But lies, as social scientists confirm, are part of our social and historic fabric. Despite thousands, and probably millions of years of moral, ethical, legal and religious sanctions, people not only tell lies, but accept them; they wink at lies they know are lies and at lies they wish were truths. ("You don't look a day over 30, darling.")

What is most interesting about lies and lying is not that they exist, but why they do, and why they persist so universally and with such strength. (There is even some evidence that chimpanzees and other animals lie, and--in experiments--rats have been taught to "lie" to get tasty rewards.) If truth and lies are not flip sides of a single coin, both apparently buy us some things we really value.

Lies have been legal tender throughout human history. Because they've been around so long in so many different societies, they've become predictable and formed patterns. So they tell us a great deal about ourselves and each other, important things about what we value.

Experts believe that lies can help tell us what we consider normal, why we raise our children the way we do, and explain our creativity (or lack of it), our business sense and our status in society. They tell us why our jokes are funny and our superstitions are not, and how carefully we honor our marriage vows. They shed light on why women value different things than men, why fraternities have initiations, why we invent colorful language and names for things, and in part what generated our laws and legal system.

In biology, a genetic trait--like color vision or the ability to grind meat with our teeth--that is conserved, nurtured and passed down to all generations is probably necessary for survival. So, too, experts now suggest, are certain psychological traits and their expression, including lying and lies.

"Lying is not an inborn skill, but is first learned early in childhood, probably as a way to avoid unwelcome consequences," says behavioral psychologist Michael F. Cataldo, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "The fascinating thing about this kind of behavior is that it's unbelievably durable because the occasions for needing it occur to everyone very frequently, giving all of us lots of reasons to keep it up. It is impossible for me to think that one could go through life not confronting those occasions and therefore not lying."

As an alternative to telling the whole truth, we learn to tell more "positive" lies, repeat rumors and generate gossip that help us get what we want ("Of course I'll still love you in the morning"); feel better or make excuses for ourselves ("My boss only got where she is by looks, not talent" or "It's your fault I drink"); focus attention on ourselves ("I got my Ph.D. at Harvard"); hide shame ("No, I'm not in therapy") or precipitate action ("I can't possibly stay here without a 20% raise").

Clearly, no one knows how or when the first lie occurred--although Genesis tells us that Adam lied to the Almighty about his role in the apple episode. One possible scenario, however, is that the first lie was told by the first person to figure out that when you don't know the true value of something, coming to a fair trade requires some conniving. Reinforcing that scenario to this day is the expectation and fun derived from the process of bargaining. "It's a social occasion, it gets people engaged with each other, and in the best situations, creates only winners no losers," notes psychologist Cataldo. "That's a very strong incentive to continue it."

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