Two weeks ago in this blog, I mentioned that I once played the oboe.
But who knows? Maybe I was lying.
According to studies conducted by Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, when we’re making small talk with strangers, we tend to lie to each other about three times every 10 minutes.
Feldman offers that disquieting factoid in an excerpt from his recent book, The Liar in Your Life: How Lies Work and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, which ran Saturday in the British newspaper The Guardian.
According to Feldman, we lie with little shame and great aplomb.
Take this exchange between two college-age participants in one of Feldman’s studies. The participants (“Tim” and “Allison”) were instructed to spend 10 minutes getting to know each other. Some participants (Feldman doesn’t say if Tim or Allison were among them) had been asked to try to appear likable, as if they were at a party. Others were told to appear competent, as they might in a job interview.
Tim decided to impress Allison by telling her about his band.
Tim: We just signed to a record company, actually.
Tim: Yeah, Epitaph.
Allison: Do you sing or…
Time: Yeah, I’m the lead singer.
Only, Tim wasn’t the lead singer. His band hadn’t signed with a record company. In fact, he wasn’t in a band at all!
The gall of it all
This exchange was only one of what Feldman found to be “an extraordinary pattern” of lying — a pattern characterized by amazing chutzpah:
Participants in my study confessed to lies that were big and small, rooted in truth and fantastic, relatively defensible and simply baffling. Further, the lying was not limited to those to whom I had given a directive to appear likable or competent. These people lied with greater frequency, but even those with no specific agenda lied regularly. … Some lied as many as 12 times [during the course of a 10-minute conversation], and those are just the lies participants admitted to.
Our reasons for lying are many. We lie to address our own insecurities when meeting new people, says Feldman, and also because lying about ourselves is often easier than telling the truth. “Just being yourself” requires more creative effort than lying, he claims, because it involves deciding “which attributes to emphasize and which to minimize, which impulse to follow and which to ignore.”
(Although British psychologists earlier this year reported that people tend to take 30 percent longer to lie than to speak the truth.)
Sometimes we lie, adds Feldman, just to keep the conversation flowing. (“You remember my friend Jan, don’t you?” “Oh, sure.”)
Not easy to catch
If you think you have good intuitive radar for catching people at their lies, think again, says Feldman. He cites a 2006 study that found people pick out fibbers’ falsehoods only 47 percent of the time. “In other words, we are actually a little worse at figuring out when someone is deceiving us than we would be if we just guessed randomly,” he says.
Sometimes, though, we don’t want to expose the lie. In fact, we become “willing accomplices” in perpetuating the untruth. Case in point: the deception behind much of the housing bubble. Says Feldman:
Borrowers with miserable credit ratings assured lenders that this time they would repay their loans; lenders assured borrowers that astronomical interest rates wouldn’t lead them to financial ruin and eventual default. Both sides had a financial stake in allowing the deception to continue.
To tell the truth
Deception is all around us, it seems. We certainly complain about it with our politicians. But, as Feldman points out, “[w]hat if their dishonest behavior actually makes them resemble us more than it sets them apart?”
Oh, and just for the record: I did play the oboe. I can produce witnesses if necessary.
But did I ever tell you about my post-college run as a cast member of an off-Broadway revival of “Oh! Calcutta!”?