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Pants on Fire 

Why do we lie?

click to enlarge ALI BLACKWOOD ILLUSTRATION
  • Ali Blackwood Illustration

I don't lie. Oh, that time I told my friend her haircut was cute when, well, it wasn't. That was just a little fib... I didn't want to hurt her feelings.

You don't lie either, right? When you called in sick with "food poisoning," no big deal, right?

What about the time you fudged on your income taxes to save yourself some hard-earned bucks? That doesn't count. Or does it?

Politicians? Well, that's another story. We know they lie. These days, entire websites are devoted to fact checking because of the tidal wave of half-truths, "alternative" facts, exaggerations and downright falsehoods that come out of the mouths of many elected officials. The disassociation with the truth is having a corrosive effect: According to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, only 19 percent of Americans say they trust the government all or most of the time.

The media isn't faring very well, either. A 2016 Gallup Poll reveals that only 32 percent of Americans trust the media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly."

From me to you to the institutions and organizations in the highest realms of power, white lies and whoppers weave their way through the fabric of life.

SHADES OF GRAY

What level of truth-stretching is permissible? There are wide gradations in the concept of falsehoods. My idea of a big, fat lie might fall in the not-that-bad category for you, and vice versa. Writing in Psychology Today, Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., categorizes lies in three ways: white lies, business lies and trickster lies.

White lies, Furnham states, occur when someone hopes to improve social discourse or protect another person's feelings. These conversational blips seem harmless and are often told to spare someone's feelings or fit in with customs. The haircut compliment that isn't exactly forthright. To most of us, these kinds of "white lies" are generally harmless.

The business or professional lie is a much more serious breach. It distorts or omits facts under the guise of expediting business or personal relationships, Furnham says. The prospective employee who pads his résumé with false credentials. The husband who says he's working late when he's cheating on his wife. Lies in this category can damage credibility, destroy relationships and put finances and lives at risk.

So-called "trickster" lies have a deceptively playful name. These lies can be devastating. They're mostly found in the public arena, in business or politics or government. These lies involve knowingly omitting or exaggerating important details, or even complete falsehoods.

Unsubstantiated claims of weapons of mass destruction by the George W. Bush administration ushered us into war in Iraq, and the fantasy posted on ChristianTimes.com (also fake) of ballot boxes in Ohio stuffed with Hillary Clinton votes damaged the credibility of both the candidate and the state's election commission. Dire consequences result when people in power, or those influencing opinions and thought, manipulate the truth.

WHY DO WE LIE?

It's easy to justify shading the truth now and then, but it doesn't matter whether you grew up in a home that preached truth-telling or just crawled out from under a rock; you know that anything but the most harmless white lie is wrong.

Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., author of Nonviolent Communication, says that humans have five basic interpersonal needs: attention, acceptance, appreciation, approval and affection. It's easy to imagine stepping on the banana peel of truth by telling a lie in order to gain those life-affirming reactions from family, friends, employers and social contacts.

"What motivation or secondary gains are being met for this person by the act of lying?" says Crystl Murray-Mills, a Spokane social worker and counselor who has worked with individuals and families for the past decade. "Are they seeking attention? Are they embarrassed about something? Is there an underlying issue such as a drug problem that needs to be addressed?"

WHEN IS LYING A PROBLEM?

Real problems arise when lying becomes compulsive or pathological. (These syndromes are also known as mythomania and my favorite, pseudologia fantastica.)

A compulsive liar habitually tells stories that have elements of truth but are just a little off. They often suffer from low self-esteem and are lying to enhance their image — in their own mind as well as in the listener. Compulsive liars may have learned the habit from their parents, could be coping with childhood trauma or are battling an undiagnosed nervous system condition such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, impulsive behavior, borderline personality, narcissism or substance abuse.

Pathological liars, also known as sociopaths, are master manipulators who lie for no reason and have absolutely no remorse because they lack empathy for others. Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, says, "The central trait of sociopathy is a complete lack of conscience, which is very difficult for most people to get their heads around, because those of us who do have a conscience can't really imagine what it would be like if we didn't."

HOW DO YOU COPE WITH A LIAR?

If the lying appears to harm no one and falls into the category of what you consider a white lie, let it go. If the lying is frequent, hurtful, manipulative or destructive (to you, the liar or someone else), speak with the liar privately.

"First, you have to recognize that you do not have any control over another person's behavior," Murray-Mills says. "Not shaming someone for lying is really important, because people may not hear your concerns if you guilt or shame them. Don't invite them to lie again by asking a question about the lie. Simply acknowledge that you know. It's appropriate to acknowledge the negative impact of the lie in a way that's informative and does not inflame the situation. Focus on trust and communication, not the lie itself."

Dealing with a compulsive liar is much trickier. "Setting boundaries is key when dealing with a compulsive liar," Murray-Mills says. "Remember, you cannot control or change another person. They must face the problem and be willing to undergo therapy."

Antidepressant or antipsychotic drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy (the process of changing thoughts to change behavior) have been shown to be effective ways to treat chronic lying.

If you're facing a pathological liar, Stout has just one piece of advice: Walk away. She says only a trained psychotherapist is equipped to deal with a pathological liar, through medication and treatment.

Armed with this arsenal of information on lying, the next time I start to rattle off a white lie, a half-truth or a downright falsehood, I think I'll take a deep breath and ask myself what I'm trying to avoid or manipulate. A confrontation? Negative consequences? Hurting someone's feelings? Am I trying to look smarter or more competent?

Then, I hope I have the backbone to put on my big-girl pants and tell the truth, with tact and kindness or soul-baring honesty. ♦

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