Kevin Hogan

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Before learning the signals and cues of deception you must know why people lie, who lies and who is deceptive. You want to know why people do something and then it is much easier to spot precisely what they are doing.

Con artists, hustlers, card sharks… they all have to lie.  It’s how they get by. But almost everyone spins stories for spouses, co-workers and friends, every day.

Many people, in fact are drawn in by context every week to tell a lie. This is why many psychiatrists consider chronic lying a symptom of a deeper emotional problem such as delusional thinking, psychopathy or narcissism.

The Every Day Liar

Provocative new research suggests that people lie chronically for a wide variety of reasons.

In a recent article reviewing 100 years of literature on the subject, as well as several cases in the news, doctors at Yale University find that some chronic liars are capable, successful, even disciplined people who embellish their life stories needlessly. They don’t suffer from an established mental illness, as many habitual fabricators do. They’re just…liars.

“Many of us have known these kinds of people; it’s like they wake up in the morning and have to tell the most preposterous stories for no apparent reason,” said Dr. Charles Dike, a co-author of the article with Yale psychiatrists Dr. Ezra Griffith and Madelon Baranoski. Their findings were presented at a recent conference of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, a forensic psychiatry group.

These men and women are viewed as otherwise normal. Yet they have this compulsion. As liars, they become more sympathetic figures. They are neither as manipulative or malicious as they may seem. They are at least predictable.

“In these cases where there is no underlying mental problem,” Dike said, “we then can ask: What about the individual’s life is causing this abnormal pattern of deception?”

Psychologists have long known that some deception is a normal, healthy part of human behavior, often starting in children as young as 5 or 6. In adulthood, most people lie routinely, if usually harmlessly, throughout the day. Remember the Jim Carrey film, Liar, Liar??

In one continuing experiment, Robert Feldman, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has had people record their conversations over a couple of days. Watching the tapes later, the men and women tally their own deceptions. The average fib rate: three for every 15 minutes of conversation!

“One woman heard herself on the telephone, sympathizing with her boyfriend who was sick,” Feldman said. “At the time of the conversation, she told us, all she was thinking was, ‘What a big baby.'”

Why do people lie?

To avoid hurting other people’s feelings, to cover our own embarrassment, to reassure the needlessly anxious, to spare unnecessary headaches. But, the lying becomes less appropriate when used as an all-purpose coping strategy.

A behavior common to nearly all chronic liars is that they change their behavior when caught. “One person who I went to college with would make up fantastic stories, saying he was going off to Europe, for example,” said Dike. “Then you would see him later that evening. He’d say, ‘Oh, the trip was canceled at the last minute.’ There was always an explanation.”

Do Chronic Liars Have a “Double Consciousness?”

On psychological tests, chronic liars do show evidence of a neurological imbalance. They have highly developed verbal skills combined with slight impairment in the frontal lobes of the brain, which critically examine what we’re saying.

One psychiatrist who studied pathological liars in the early 1900s described what he called a “double consciousness” in which a person runs two narratives in their head, a desired life and an actual one, with the former often overwhelming the latter.

We all daydream. We all buffer ourselves against painful truths and massage the past. The pathological liar’s biggest violation may be simply in taking those private deceptions public.

This article was adapted from an article by Benedict Carey of the Los Angeles Times.


In our next installment in this Body Language Power Series Mini-Course, we’ll talk about when people tend to lie the most. Do you have a guess as to what the answer might be? Until next time…

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