Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Ricky Gervais was in an interesting movie called “The Invention of Lying.” The concept of the movie was fun; what if lying had never existed? What if the concept of lying just never crossed anybody’s mind? The move is really two parts, the first of which (the introduction) shows what the writers view as the consequences of a society where everybody is brutally honest. The humor in this is that what people say comes across as incredibly rude and hurtful. It’s certainly not the point; people are just being completely honest with their opinions and observations, but it sounds extreme. Then, the main character tells the world’s first lie. The movie then takes a turn into how this one lie ends up evolving to extreme ends, exacerbated by the fact that, since nobody has a concept of lying, believe everything that he says, including a scene where he is making up obvious lies to make his point.
This movie crossed my mind when a friend of mine asked me where people learn to become habitual liars. No, this is not intended to be a political post, but I may draw on some examples, and, honestly, I have no idea where this post is going to so. That’s because, in full brutal and heartless honesty, I am not an expert. I have no training in psychology, but I have been around liars my entire life as, no doubt, you have as well. Still, I’m not above hypothesizing.
First of all, let’s get the obvious one out of the way. Addicts, as my wife was (and likely still is), tend to be habitual liars. While I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, I’m guessing this is because addicts, at least the ones I know, begin by lying to themselves. Their lies are usually justifications and denial of the existence of my problem. “I can stop any time I want,” or “I don’t have a problem,” or “everybody is doing this” are the common self-lies that, often, also become lies to people around them.
The purpose of this post is not to discuss specifically the lies of addicts, but it does provide an interesting case study for us. The lies told by addicts do have purpose; they accomplish something, namely, putting off the need to acknowledge that yes, in fact, the victim of the addiction does have a real problem. It’s not easy to acknowledge that something else has control over our lives, especially a non-intelligent entity like a chemical, or a habit. This is why so many political campaigns focus on “minimizing government”. People like to feel independent and free from being controlled without oversight, so the promise of less control, such as through taxes and laws, always rings as a good decision despite the fact that the government and laws were created at the behest of people wanting that control usually for self-preservation.
These lies, then, begin to be practiced, not only in statements the addict will make to themselves but to the people around them. One might argue that there are some addicts that don’t realize that these are lies because they genuinely do not know that they have a problem and I certainly couldn’t argue that away. I’m sure there are people with addiction problems of which they are not yet aware, but it has been my experience that at some point, the true addict does become aware of the problem on some level of consciousness. That problem awareness moves from the subconscious, to pondering, to recognition but outright denial. This is the stage at which the lies are practiced.
It’s been suggested that lying is a way to manipulate. I suppose that’s obvious, but there are a couple of different reasons. I gave one, the lie to avoid an unpleasant truth, above. All too often, telling the truth can get us into significant trouble. Heck, I’ve been fired twice, and both times I believe that being too honest was a root cause. I could have easily ducked and said what my bosses wanted to hear, but I wasn’t trying to be hurtful. Both times I saw legitimate issues that I tried to bring up, issues my supervisors did not want to hear, and their response was to let me go. Had I dropped it, that would have been a type of lie (lying by omission) and I would still have those jobs.
The other reason to lie is to get something that you want. In the aforementioned movie, the inventor of lying was strapped for cash and lied about how much was in his bank account. In an example of the ironic extremes the movie brings up, the teller automatically assumes there is something wrong with the computer. Often people will tell falsehoods for gain; I had a ticket but I lost it, or hey, you found my money.
Maybe there are other reasons that people lie, but I suspect that avoiding trouble or personal gain are the two major ones. And yet, people have to have learned how to lie from somewhere, and it’s not a uniquely human trait. I once knew a dog that would start barking at the door and, realizing nobody was there, would keep barking while acting suspicious by looking at the humans to see if they’re believing the act or not. I’ve even heard of a dog that would bark at a door only to steal pizza as the human goes to check it out. I suppose that these examples demonstrate that it is possible to pick up lying as an original thought. This was demonstrated in the Bible, when God specifically told Adam and Eve not to pull at that thing, but they did anyway.
Still, we are exposed to lies, and the art of lying, every day. I could bring politics back into the post at this point but that’s a piece of fruit that’s just hanging so low that I’d have to stoop to bring it up. No, the lies I mean are from those around us, people we trust. Parents saying they’ve never done drugs knowing they did experiment or didn’t have sex until they were married although their child was born four months after the ceremony. These are lies of convenience, but often they are exposed in one way or another. Then the child knows that their parents lie, and they no doubt catch uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and even people who lie during work telling lies as well. They witness it, experience it, and pick up on it.
Then the rewards kick in. Getting out of trouble for telling a lie or being rewarded (for example with a second cookie) for a lie reinforce the value of the lie. Yes, people are often punished if they’re caught in a lie, but does this teach them not to lie, or to become better liars so they don’t get caught? It’s a slippery slope.
Once they practice at lying and become better at it, that will lead to more lies and the habit of lying. As a habit, eventually it won’t even register to them that they are lying, or it becomes a game of manipulation. If a psychiatrist or psychologist reading this and would like to chime in, even if to correct me, I would love that. But I submit this string of logic as my hypothesis as to how a habitual liar becomes as such.