The Truth About Lying

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007

We are liars and lie catchers, and the sport runs from the banal to the breathtaking, from personal to public. Right now, someone somewhere is lying about "having plans tonight." Meanwhile, someone else is discovering that his or her spouse has methodically concealed an affair. And take a look at the news of the past couple of weeks: Barry Bonds was charged with perjury. City employees were accused of fabricating companies to siphon taxpayer money. Lies are all around us.

Sometimes, of course, dishonesty is the best policy. Lying, for all the bad it might cause, is an indispensable part of keeping our day-to-day lives running smoothly.

"Everybody lies -- every day; every hour; awake; asleep; in his dreams; in his joy; in his mourning," Mark Twain wrote in his 1882 essay "On the Decay of the Art of Lying."

Much of the time we don't even know it. Lying is a necessary, near-involuntary practice that keeps the fabric of society from unraveling. Example:

"How are you?" a co-worker asks.

"Fine, thanks," you say, when in truth you're not fine. Life is a hellish morass, and this person is getting in the way of your dutiful self-pity. But to respond in such a dour manner would turn a passing pleasantry into an awkward, socially debilitating episode.

Take your average 10-minute conversation between two acquaintances. In that span, the average person will lie two to three times. That's not cynicism. That's science. And it's ingrained in us at a young age, when we're whipsawed between "honesty is the best policy" and "no matter what, tell Aunt Barbara you like her gift."

"We're always telling children you should tell the truth, and yet we're also giving them the message that it's absolutely fine to lie," says Robert Feldman, associate dean at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts. "At a very early age we're getting these conflicting messages about honesty, and for some people it makes them more prepared to be deceptive later in life."

And here we are, all grown up and peddling lies big and small: exaggerating our r¿sum¿s, misleading our lovers, fibbing to spare people pain, lying to ourselves to preserve our sanity. All those fit into the seven reasons we lie, as delineated by the psychologist Paul Ekman: We lie to avoid punishment, to get a reward, to protect others, to escape an awkward social situation, to enhance our egos, to control information and to fulfill our job descriptions (think spies).

So many reasons to lie. So many ways to lie. How do we cut through the thick crust of deception and drill our way to the hot, molten core of truth?

It's easy. With training and practice.

When it comes to teaching the art of detecting deception, Ekman is the man. His 1985 book "Telling Lies" is a benchmark work on the topic, and he has tested the lie-detection ability of more than 12,000 people and found that the average person will correctly identify a lie 54 percent of the time, hardly a desirable success rate. But that person will do considerably better if taught to detect micro-expressions, which are suppressed (or repressed) emotions that briefly flash across someone's face. The truth is often tucked discreetly under a quilt of cheerful lies.

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