Q and A with Robert Feldman Author of The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships
What was the most surprising thing you found in doing your research on lying?
The extent of lying in everyday life. When I began my research, I thought lies were rare, something uncommon and only occasionally found in daily life. When I discovered how often lies were used in everyday conversation—for instance, that two people getting acquainted lie an average of three times in ten minutes—I was stunned.
Why do people lie so much?
Most often, the lies we are exposed to are not venal, but rather ways to make social interactions proceed more smoothly. People lie to be agreeable or to make us feel better about ourselves. Of course, people also lie to build themselves up or to gain some advantage over us. And many of us lie to ourselves as much as we are lied to by others.
What's the biggest misconception about lying?
There are actually two. One is that there are certain cues that always betray a liar, and that we can spot them and use them to identify liars. As I discuss in the book, no single or even combination of verbal or nonverbal behaviors invariably indicate when a person is lying. And many of the cues we think are associated with lying are unrelated to deception. So it turns out we're not very good at telling when others are being untruthful.
The other misconception is that we are relentless truth-seekers. It turns out that in many cases we accept and even embrace the lies of others. In some cases, it is simply expedient to accept others' lies. And when lies are consistent with the way we wish to view ourselves (as smart, competent, successful people), we're often motivated to believe the lies to which we are exposed.
Can you tell if someone is lying?
No. I may have my suspicions, but I've learned enough from my own research to know that it's too easy to make mistakes. Most people have no better than a coin-flip chance of telling a lie from the truth. Of course, that doesn't stop me from making informed guesses, but I always temper my suspicions with the knowledge that humans are highly imperfect lie detectors, as I describe in the book.
Have there been instances in which you were lied to, and only found out about it later?
Of course. Like the rest of us, I'm lied to all the time. Most of these lies are small ones (e.g., "working with that personal trainer is really paying off" or "your piano playing is certainly improving"). But I've also been the recipient of more serious lies, lies that have made me rethink my relationships with others.
How did writing this book affect your own interactions with other people?
It made has me more skeptical and doubting of others. I've tried to put aside the innate inclination that most of us have to assume others are honest and assume, instead, that I'm being lied to. So I'm often trying to figure out how accurate others are, when in the past I might accept what they say at face value.
How's that going?
It's an interesting challenge. One of the reasons liars get away with lying is that most people just assume they're telling the truth. By understanding that we're exposed to so many lies, it really does make one listen to others more closely. And I think that doing that makes us more sensitive and understanding of what others are really saying to us. So I believe my listening skills have improved.
And how about your own honesty? How has the book affected that?
The research I've carried out has made me just as vigilant about my own honesty as I am about others'. I work very hard to be completely honest and to avoid, as much as possible, the small dishonesties that are endemic to social relationships. Those lies have a cost, whether they're discovered or not. But it's hard: I still find it difficult to tell someone that they are putting on weight, or made a terrible presentation, or have awful breath.
What do you think of the TV show, "Lie To Me"?
Oh, if only I had a beautiful office, designer suits, and flew on private jets from one case to another—as well as an uncanny ability to read others' facial expressions so well that I almost always knew when they were lying. But I don't, nor does anyone else. Although there's a grain of scientific truth to the show, it provides a highly improbable view of how easy it is to identify liars. In short, it may be good TV, but it's not the way people in the real world operate.
How did you get interested in the topic of lying?
I'm a product of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, when trust in the honesty of our elected officials was probably at an all-time low. My political feelings aside, from a professional point of view, I was fascinated by how some public figures could lie so easily, and why people were often so willing to accept those lies. When I started my graduate work in psychology, I looked at what the psychological explanation might be for why these government officials lied, and, conversely, why people were so susceptible to the lies. I ended up starting a lifetime's research on the identification of deception. Obviously, the decades that followed Watergate have provided no shortage of incidents of major deceit, in the political sphere and beyond. I'm continually fascinated by how people lie, and how they get away with it.
Are there any incidents from your early life that foreshadowed your professional interest in lying?
When I was nine, one of the rites of passage my friends had devised was to steal something from an ancient five-and-dime store. I purloined a yo-yo. While proudly displaying it to my friends, I got caught by my mother. Predictably, she asked where I got it, and I lied. I told her I'd found the shiny, unworn yo-yo in the street. My mother declared she didn't believe me, and I confessed to what I'd done. After I'd been marched down to the store, returned the yo-yo and shame-facedly apologized, my mother revealed that she hadn't really known whether or not I was lying—until she pretended to recognize my deceit and I confessed. So, I was lying to her, but in order to ferret out the truth, she lied to me, too. That incident stayed with me, and triggered an interest in how lying functions and the many contradictions we deal with in negotiating fact and fiction.
It's clear why we should be concerned about venal, self-serving lies. But isn't it the case that little white lies don't really hurt anyone?
Those little white lies do matter. In and of themselves, white lies can produce interactions that are less intimate and personal. Cumulatively, they create an environment of deception that enhances the probability of larger lies being committed.
Do you think our society is becoming more dishonest?
There's no hard data, but my sense is that society is indeed becoming less honest. Certainly, deception is hardly a new phenomenon (think Garden of Eden), but more recently, I believe the lies of the Clinton era have made Americans more tolerant of deception. Yes, Clinton lied and was punished by undergoing the humiliation of the impeachment process. But the ultimate lesson to observers is that in the long run he was able to get away with his lies, and today he is one of the most popular ex-presidents we have. In this case, Clinton is a prominent role model, and his ability to ultimately prosper in the face of his deceptions sends the message that lying is acceptable. And we certainly can see evidence of an extraordinarily high level of dishonesty in the breathtaking deceptions that led to the free-fall of our economy, with bogus mortgage documentation and banks bundling mortgages into complex financial instruments that were so deliberately opaque that no one could truly understand them.
What was your reaction to the Bernie Madoff scandal?
Madoff is the poster boy for financial deception, but he was hardly alone. The freewheeling excesses of the financial industry range from Enron to dozens of banks that over-valued their assets. What makes Madoff unique in the financial world was that his deception was so personal: he duped people who he knew were entrusting their entire fortunes to him. Furthermore, he duped them repeatedly, with no regard for the ultimate consequences.
What's your advice for dealing with a liar?
Liars need to be confronted. If you suspect someone is lying to you, you should talk to him or her about it. It may be uncomfortable, you may not get the answer you want, and the exchange may lead to further deceptions on the part of the liar. However, if you don't confront a liar—if you ignore the lie, pretend it isn't present, and let it slide by unchallenged—in a very real sense you've become a liar yourself.