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Patty Kleban: I Cannot Tell a Lie

by on January 21, 2013 6:00 AM

I’m calling last week “the week of the lie.”

In addition to the regular lies and contradictory statements that we have come to expect from politicians and criminals (not necessarily in that order) last week on TV, we had Lance Armstrong admitting that he had made a career of lying about his use of performance enhancing drugs. Then, in a story that doesn’t make sense any way you look at it, a Notre Dame football player makes national news because he was apparently lied to via an Internet hoax about a fictitious girlfriend.

Lying. The telling of untruths or making false statements to deceive others.

The research on lying is fascinating. In a nutshell, everyone does it, but the level at which we lie, the circumstances for the deception and the motivation for not telling the truth says a lot about who we are. The ability to differentiate and then deliver a non-truth is actually a normal part of our emotional and psychological development. Scientists in human development have observed that as children begin to understand that parents are not always watching, they learn that they can mislead or stretch the truth. One study found that 4 year olds typically lie once every two hours; by the age of 6, it increases to one lie every 90 minutes. Lying as a feature of our interaction generally peaks during adolescence, particularly in parent-teen communication. On average, according to the research, the non-pathological adult lies between two and five times per day.

How do we define what is a lie? It depends on who you ask. Deception has been identified on the continuum from answering, “I’m fine” when one is really having a bad day to a full blown out whopper like, “I did not have sex with that woman.” It has even been suggested that things like plastic surgery or dying one’s hair are forms of lying.

I have an appointment to update my blonde highlights this week so I guess by Wednesday afternoon I’ll be living a lie.

Why do we lie? The theories are interesting. We reportedly learn to lie from our parents. As we teach our kids to be polite and to filter their true opinions and feelings in the name of decorum, we are subtly teaching our kids to lie. Thank you for this gift. It’s exactly what I wanted. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. From that, children begin to transfer skills at lying to the greater social network. In other words, your parents taught you that when a friend asks, “Do you like these new jeans?” you say, “I think tight jeans are really in style now” rather than your real thought bubble of, “Holy cow! Those babies are two sizes too small!”

Studies have found that people who are extroverted and outgoing are a bit more apt to lie. People who have a strong sense of responsibility and positive same sex friendships are less likely to stretch the truth. The statistics on gender show that men and women are similar in how often we lie but what we lie about varies; women are more likely to lie to protect someone else’s feelings whereas men reportedly lie more about themselves.

Not surprisingly, people often report that they have negative feelings after telling a lie. Studies that compared two groups – one of which was asked to try to reduce the number of lies per day – found that fewer lies lead to reduced health issues like headaches and stomach issues.

A few summers ago, my two then-college-aged daughters decided to ride along with me to pick up their younger brother from a sports camp at an out-of-state university. We got there a little early; the campers had not yet finished their last morning session. As we waited in the camp store, we struck up a conversation with the assistant coach who was running the clothing sales. We shared that we were from State College and the girls were students at Penn State. He pulled two T-shirts off the display and threw them at my girls and said, “Hey girls, wear these at Penn State and everyone will think you are cool.” We thanked him for his generous gift and I put the T-shirts in my oversized purse. We then went back outside to wait. Not long after, the head coach came off the field and came over to talk to the parents who were waiting while our sons packed up their dorm rooms. After chatting with my daughters, he looked at me and asked, “Can I take your girls with me for a second?” It seemed pretty safe so I said, “Sure.” My daughters followed him back into the camp store where he introduced them to several of his college players and then he proceeded to pull two T-shirts off the display. He handed them each a T-shirt and said, “Do me a favor and wear these around campus at Penn State.”

When the girls came back out to me and handed me the second set of T-shirts, I said, “Why didn’t you tell him that you had already been given shirts?” They laughed and said, “You told us to always be appreciative of a gift even if we already have one.” Their younger brother didn’t think it was quite as funny given that none of the four T-shirts were his size.

Studies show that sometimes it’s less stressful for people to tell a lie than to risk the negative social reaction of telling the truth.

In addition to lying to be polite, people lie about all sorts of things. According to surveys, we lie to make ourselves look better and to gain status. We lie to prevent hurting other people’s feelings. We lie to control information and manipulate others. We lie to avoid consequences.

While some degree of prevarication is human nature, there are also sociopathic, compulsive or personality disorder liars who use mistruth as a way to harm others or to put their needs first. For some of these folks, lying is second nature. It’s part of their personality. They often believe their own lies or rationalize that the lie was necessary. Hence, the dismissal of the lie detector test as a truth meter. Some folks are able to lie without the related physiological and/or psychological reactions that the rest of us experience when we knowingly deceive.

In the end, being caught in a lie usually has negative consequences. From a world renowned cyclist to the college student who submits someone else’s paper for a grade to “Do these jeans make me look fat?” telling untruths can damage relationships, careers and, sometimes, result in legal consequences as we have seen in Happy Valley over the past 18 months. As we tell our children, telling the truth is the right thing to do.

George Washington has been quoted as saying, “I cannot tell a lie” when asked by his father about chopping down the cherry tree. Unfortunately, historians have said he never actually said it. Like much of what we read and what we see and some of what we say, it was all a lie.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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