My second grader came home the other day and exclaimed that her friend was a liar. When questioned, it turned out that this particular friend told her that she was going to wear jeans the next day and in fact she had not done so. Her 8 year old interpretation was “Liar!” It’s a shockingly powerful word to use, particularly in this circumstance. No one would ever want to be called a liar, but in reality we lie all the time. Every day, to ourselves and to the people around us. I am not even shitting you.
Researchers who study lying say there are as many reasons to fib as there are people in the world. It could be to get laid, to land a new job, to impress someone or just because you feel like it. University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman conducts studies on lying and finds that all of us lie at least once a day, to many times a day. He even goes so far as to say that lying may actually be good for you. White lies, that is. In fact, people who delude themselves in large and small ways may be better off socially. Think: I look hot in this, I can run a marathon or I can start my own business. Your brain interprets these as truths, thereby making something within your reach. Huge whopper lies are not so beneficial. Do you know Lance Armstrong?
As an ardent supporter of Livestrong, Lance’s cancer advocacy organization, I did races and even served as an liaison after attending a Livestrong Summit. Our families had been hit hard by cancer, my husband also being an avid cyclist, we believed in him. We took his word for it. Then, watching the Oprah interview, we were struck by what a complete, total and spectacular fucking liar he is. This guy vehemently denies the truth and walks over anyone who gets in his way. But, on the other hand, I really do believe he came to believe his own fabrications. He had to. Elizabeth Loftus, a social psychology professor at University of California Irvine, tells us that there is such a thing as false memory. We often believe things that didn’t actually happen. Nothing, not a high IQ, not celebrity, not even financial security makes you immune from “misremembering.” It makes sense to me that for years upon years, Lance convinced himself that he hadn’t done anything wrong. He is still convincing himself. A pathological liar, an egomaniac and a narcissist; he is all these things. It seems ironic that he wore so many yellow jerseys, considering the Merriam Webster definition of yellow: “cowardly” and “scandalous.”
We have had many conversations with our girls about him and what can be learned from his lying ways. He only made things worse for himself, he’s losing millions, he is patently untrustworthy from now on etc. But it’s like your mom always told you, don’t listen to what people say. Instead, watch what they do. Actions speak louder than words. Kids learn to lie by age 3, and see it’s value immediately. They know the power of a carefully executed lie. But my fifth grader is already starting to become more aware of the lies people tell. She knows the authenticity of a person who walks the walk. A friend who says you can trust her, then goes and tells your deepest secret. These are the painful lessons of childhood, and adulthood as well.
As for little white lies, I am all for them. Last week was a difficult and sad week in our family. My oldest daughter wound up with the stomach flu on top of everything else (which I can say truthfully really sucked). When she asked if she would feel better in the morning, I lied and told her it would be over soon and promised her sleepovers and all kinds of goodies when she got better. I don’t apologize for stretching the truth here, a few positive words helped her get through it. I don’t apologize for promising I’d stay awake even though I did fall asleep. I know what she needed to hear.
I know exactly what you are doing right now! You are telling yourself that you never lie, you are always truthful to a fault. You could never be accused of proclaiming falsehoods. But Stephen J. Dubner, author of “The Hidden Side of Everything” disagrees. All of us are prone to suggestion when asked how we hope to behave. When Americans are polled from anything from whether they vote, to how often we wash our hands, to how often we use condoms, you guessed it…we lie. If it’s a big lie, our bodies may give us away. Our brains and our sympathetic nervous system worries about getting caught: we may get tense or fidgety, our heart rate increases, our body temperature elevates (watch for these signs with that irritable teenager). For white lies, however, nothing. Our brains seems to intuit it’s for the best.
So here we are in suburbia, and as it turns out, lying is a necessary social evil. Just make sure and tell me I look great in my yoga pants and ponytail.
Thanks to Barbara Paulsen for her amazing photos. I absolutely love both of her photos at the top and bottom. They are so haunting and surreal. Check out more at Mt. Hood Mama photos. I am not lying, you won’t regret it.
Lance Armstrong photo: Cover of Bicycling magazine, October 2012