The truth is … everybody lies.
On average, we are lied to 10 to 200 times a day. White lies. Marketing lies. Face-saving lies. Blaming lies. Outright deception.
Bring two strangers together and during the next 10 minutes of getting acquainted, they will lie three times on average, according to Robert Feldman, dean of the college of social and behavioral sciences and professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, who has dedicated his career to the study of lying in everyday life. He is the author of “The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships.”
Almost from the moment we are able to put words into sentences, we start lying, Feldman says. By age 4, kids are darn good at it. And as we mature, we only get better and better at lying.
Lying is epidemic in the United States, according to Feldman and others who study the trend of deception.
Lies and hoaxes made headlines this week, when Lincolnite Charlie Rogers went from victim of a horrendous hate crime to alleged mastermind of an elaborate hoax.
On July 22, Rogers told police three masked men broke into her home, bound her, carved anti-gay slurs into her skin, poured gasoline on the floor and tried to set her home on fire. A naked and still-bound Rogers escaped and ran to a neighbor’s home for help.
From the start, the story had its cynics.
But it also unified people from all over the community with a single goal -- putting an end to intolerance and hate.
Now Lincoln Police and the FBI say the reported crime was a hoax.
Why would someone do this?
Theories abound. Reasons for lying are as individual as people.
But the result is universal -- another deep chink in the American armor of trust.
“We are surrounded by lying,” said Jerry Bockoven, former head of Nebraska Wesleyan University's psychology department. “It is everywhere, whether we know it or not. It is a part of the culture and … it is getting worse.”
According to Feldman, most lies are not venal but rather ways to make social interactions proceed more smoothly.
“Every liar chooses a different thought process,” Pamela Meyer, author of “Liespotting," wrote in an email interview with the Lincoln Journal Star. “But the universal dynamic that we see over and over again with deception is that a liar will try to find a way to rationalize his lie.”
Some lying is socially acceptable, such as the white lie.
Some of it is expected, such as the political candidate and the marketer.
Some of it is desired, such as the drama of “reality” television.
And, in some way, all of it is selfish.
The more our self-esteem is threatened, the more we are apt to lie, Bockoven said.
“We lie to protect our sense of who we think we are," he said. "There is a gap between who we are and who we wish to be. To tell the truth would contradict how we see ourselves ... We lie to ourselves, and in the process lie to others as well.”
Despite the predominance of lies, we still fall for them.
“In some cases, it is simply expedient to accept others’ lies," Feldman wrote on his website. "And when the lies are consistent with the way we wish to view ourselves, we are often motivated to believe the lies to which we are exposed.”
Americans have a truth bias, Meyer wrote.
“As a nation, we grow up believing George Washington could never tell a lie, and that we are innocent until proven guilty," she wrote.
Americans tend to give one another the benefit of a doubt.
“A truth bias is a good thing for civilization -- but it does get in the way of detecting deception,” Meyer wrote.
But lying usually is less painful than telling the truth.
"We lie 'cuz it works in the short term," Bockoven said. "It makes us look good to somebody, and we walk away feeling better. The trouble is, in the long term it erodes trust and intimacy between people, and that leads to problems.
"The long-term consequences have to be valued over the short-term benefit.”
The truth is lying is less painful than telling the truth. And it gets easier with practice -- so much so that Feldman found that many people didn't even realize they had lied, until they watched themselves in a video replay.
“A lot of us blow by that stop sign of ‘Don’t Lie,’ without even knowing it was there,” Bockoven said.
The key is making a conscious effort to recognize the lie before it comes out of your mouth.
“When you come to the choice between telling a lie to benefit you, or telling the truth and owning up to responsibility, you have come to a crossroads," Bockoven said. "It is important that you take the uphill, more difficult road. Because the more you take the easy road, the more the easy road takes you.
"Lies are deceptive in that they tell us: You will get what you want. But lies lie to us about what happens in the long term."