Are your pants on fire? Because Dr Robert Feldman, Psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, says that they are. His studies into lying conclude that everyone lies, and at an alarming rate too! In fact, on average people will lie two to three times in a ten-minute conversation alone, a statement that gives stead to previous estimates that humans are lied to at least 200 times a day.
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The University of Portsmouth found children could already learn and utilise deception techniques by age six months, pretending to laugh and cry for nothing other than attention. Dr Gail Saltz, a New York psychiatrist, says that once children reach the ages of four or five they have a firm enough grasp on the use and power of language to begin to lie properly. She notes that these first lies are merely a test: to see what can be manipulated in their environment and to what extent.
So how, as children, do we learn to lie?
The mechanisms behind how children learn to lie are still shrouded in mystery but research suggests that lying is a strategy used by young children as a way of developing independence. Children observe from their parents that there are things that their parents keep from them and thus begin to create secrets of their own. Thus they learn lying and secrecy from their parents.
At a young age lying is healthy and normal but as the child grows and the brain develops, normal development dictates that lying should begin to abate. This is in order to fit in with a society where lying is generally taboo.
So why do we lie?
Lying is a reflex. In fact, in one of Feldman’s studies he asked subjects to watch a filmed conversation they had just had with a stranger and point out any inaccuracies in what they said. Many of the subjects were surprised to find that they had told lies, initially claiming themselves to have be 100% accurate in the conversation.
Feldman would say that lying is an evolutionary trait. It has evolved as a good mechanism to “preserve our privacy and protect others and ourselves from malice”. This is shown in everyday life in the harmless white lies that people tell. For example, telling your friend that you like their new trainers when you wouldn’t be seen dead in them yourself. Feldman would say this protects our friend from malice and thus, they remain our friend, which is advantageous for us.
Most would agree a white lie about a pair of trainers is fairly harmless, but where do we draw the line? When is lying OK and when is it not?
When a person feels compelled to lie consistently and with seemingly nothing to be gained from that behaviour is when society tends to draw the line. This trait, known as pathological lying is self-deprecating and although not a mental health problem itself it can be seen as a symptom of various personality disorders and psychopathy. Causes can include; dysfunctional families, learning disabilities and substance abuse and pathological lying can cause the perpetrator to be ostracised as it can create relationship, financial and legal trouble.
Whilst pathological lying can be detrimental, lying from a young age is simply a healthy step in development.