Stalin, Cagliostro, Iago and finally the subconscious. Just some of the great liars of history. There is little to be said about Stalin, except that he cancelled the definition of truth itself and led a whole people to lie: for terror, need, habit.
Cagliostro is a bit more likeable though, capable of usurping noble titles, defrauding monks and poor people, as well as providing an early example of quackery.
Iago only told one lie, regarding a dream about Desdemona that led Othello to interpret true facts incorrectly. He was the prototype manipulator, demonstrating that the most refined art of the lie is to work on the context and move the pieces of the whole, or omit some. Basically constructing the lie with the truth that you have available.
Finally the subconscious, the most common liar. It cultivates stupid infantile grudges. According to some it is a nonentity, for others a legend. What it thinks, it tells the conscious without ever finding the courage to show itself.
Then, there are all the other players that have their entrances and exits from the scene, sometimes incapable of telling the truth. Often denying it with the audacity of blindness: they lie about the reality that they do not see and/or which they have to get away from. We all know someone who is daring, ravenous, coherent in lying. However, unfortunately we only recognise them once we have fallen into the trap. Into the spider’s web, devious, steadfast, enthralling in its multi-faceted intrigue, like a diamond…
I also fell for it, even though I should understand human behaviour… that is why I’m writing about it.
LIES: WHAT THE NEUROSCIENCES SAY
Nature Neuroscience has published a study that demonstrates that continually telling lies diminishes guilt and makes it easier to tell other ones. As Smithsonian reports, Tali Sharot, experimental psychologist and one of the authors of the study: “We already imagined that lying could lead to a continual increase of dishonesty, but there wasn’t yet any empirical research that could explain the reason and the process”.
To understand how it works, the researchers devised a game that encouraged people to lie: indeed, in exchange they would be given a cash prize. More than 80 participants were challenged to estimate the amount of coins they saw in a jar, and were then told to help another participant—called the “estimator”— to estimate how many coins were actually in the jar. The advisors didn’t know that the “estimators” were actually just actors involved in the study. The researchers posed about 60 different scenarios per group that would either incentivize the participants to overestimate, underestimate, or properly estimate the coins in the jar: sometimes lying helped the advisor win.
Researchers then focused on the amygdala, the region of the brain that is associated with fear, anxiety and other emotions: using an MRI machine, they found that the amygdala became less aroused with each subsequent lie that an advisor told for their own benefit, suggesting that the negative feelings that go along with telling lies dulled over time.
Previous studies had already demonstrated that dishonesty escalates when a reward for lying grows, such as when they think they might be about to miss out on a good opportunity. But this “was the first time researchers have shown dishonesty escalating with no changing motivator” says lead author Neil Garrett, a researcher at Princeton University.
The authors suggest that policy makers could draw on their findings: Sharot suggests that arousing a person’s emotional state during the time of lying may help counteract the dulling effect, inducing them to tell the truth or to behave correctly. The same idea as that behind “No Shoplifting” signs in fitting rooms, or “no copying” in class tests: “This kind of warning may lead, at the beginning, to wanting to be dishonest, but at the same time would lead to a rethink”, said Garrett.
LIES AND PSYCHOLOGY
There are various reasons why people lie compulsively and they are often connected to personality disorders: borderline (BDP) and narcissism. In the first case, because of such intense emotions as to cloud thoughts and judgement, people can start interpreting everything through a slow emotional lens capable of distorting reality. Furthermore, telling lies helps to tolerate the situation better, without the individual managing to think of the negative consequences of the lie in the long term.
In a narcissist, on the other hand, the lie comes as a reaction to the sensation of unsuitability, to construct a mask of superiority towards others, to create in the eyes of oneself and of others a special reality, not necessarily a better one. For this, a narcissist might invent themselves a prestigious job, of having gone to dinner in a luxury restaurant, posting it on social media to bridge their profound sense of unsuitability.
The situation of the pathological liar is different and more extreme: they lie in order to manipulate the other and to achieve their goal, a totally opportunistic purpose, without experiencing any remorse or guilty feelings. The lie in this case is not automatic, but it is a true strategy: often pathological liars cannot comply with either the law (committing unlawful acts like fraud, theft, etc.), or with social standards and their behaviour is often dishonest and manipulative, for example they lie or take on false identities to gain an advantage or obtain consensus.
Understandably, similar behaviour may cause difficulty within a relationship: partner, family, friends are often disoriented and angry about discovering so much pretence, and not managing to understand the reason for it, pass from blaming themselves to blaming the liar.
However, a compulsion, by definition is to make the person feel better—and as such, if they cannot be excused, once understood, they can stop being blamed: indeed, it is necessary to understand the role that lies absolve for the individual (which part of themselves are they desperately trying to hide from themselves and from others? what reason of suffering are they trying to manage?).
The pathological liar is a person who cannot live without lying. They are so concentrated on ensuring that the others do not know precisely what they are like, that they spend their time building up a network of lies to give an immaculate image of themselves.
Many people who belong to this category might seem sure and have great self-esteem. In reality, liars are not happy with themselves, they would like to be different and are unsatisfied with the life they lead. For this reason, they wear a mask and are often evasive.
They never accept to be found out and if this should happen, they will change their version of the facts a thousand times and will also behave unpredictably just to confirm to themselves and to others that they are just the kind of person they have always led you to believe.
HOW TO RECOGNISE A CHRONIC LIAR
They want to sugarcoat reality. They always present themselves as a winner and are careful to not let the mask slip. They do not accept to live a normal life, they fear mediocrity and always want to make everything seem more beautiful that what it really is. You could find out that they do the most normal job in the world, while they told you that they did much more exciting and adventurous activities.
They do not feel any remorse or a sense of guilt. They do not have traditional morals. They manage to live without any problems in the house of cards that they have created for themselves. They do not have any doubts or question themselves like any other person would do in their place. The chronic liar is often an individual who thinks that everything is due, that the others never do enough for them and are always ready to ask for more without even thinking that others might need the same attention. They are usually egocentric and before thinking about anyone else, they must be satisfied themselves first. Of course, in order to be satisfied, they tell a bundle of fibs.
They believe that they are more intelligent and astute than the others. The fact of beautifying reality even makes them feel extremely imaginative and intelligent. They see themselves as being superior to all those ‘simpletons’ who, take life as it is and even accept negative experiences. In their presumed intelligence, they often treat others with inferiority and tend to prefer the company of sweet and polite people who can pander them in their game without opposing them.
They tell stories in a convincing manner. They exaggerate events and add details, even bizarre ones to their stories in order to attract the attention of others. One lie more or one less for makes no difference to them, as long as it is interesting. The Chronic liar is often happy to have spectators ready to listen to their stories and even to be won over by them.
They change the version of the facts according to convenience. As long as they can impress the listener, the pathological liar is willing to continually change their mind (or to make you believe that they have changed it). As soon as they realise that the person they are talking to is no longer so attentive and taken by their stories, or they do not share their ideas, they are capable of cleverly changing direction to the opposite idea, making the person who is talking to them seem stupid. Indeed, it often happens that whoever witnesses this sudden change finds themselves totally wrong-footed and they keep quiet in order to not embarrass the other person and to not highlight this strange occurrence. The liar, however, will thus strengthen their own idea of being a successful person who is superior to others.
They believe in their own lies. The brain is not capable of reorganising the information and the impressions that it receives. Indeed, it always looks for a logic in what happens, even if it forces the connections between the facts. The brain of a chronic liar does not elude this rule. In its mind, the imaginary world that has been created is structured as if it were true. Dreams and reality often get muddled for the liar and they reach the point where they cannot distinguish them anymore and they are convinced that their own lies are actually truth.
They dodge responsibility. Another reason why the liar decides to lie is to dodge responsibilities. For them it is difficult to admit that they are wrong or have to justify themselves. However, they end up lying even in everyday situations and those of irrelevant importance. For example, if the chronic liar arrives late for an appointment, they may invent all kinds of excuses. The important thing for them is not to admit that they got it wrong for their own error or for disorganisation. It often happens that they invent accidents, traffic jams, misfortunes or any other strange thing to avoid the negative judgement that others would have of them if they told the truth.
They cannot tolerate others’ lies. Even though pathological liars have made lying their style of life, they cannot stand it if someone else uses the same weapon. In this case, as soon as the liar discovers someone else’s lie, it damages their pride. It would seem to be a paradox, but at times it is the chronic liar themselves who can, in some situations, become the champion of truth. In those moments, they feel endowed with a great mission and in order to further their sudden desire of honesty, they take it out on their listener, attacking them and leaving them no way out.
The do not admit to being wrong. During discussions, in order to seem to be right, the liar starts inventing skills that they do not have. Or else they refer to demonstrations and scientific studies (not even ones which certainly exist) that back up their theory. And you’d better not cause them problems. If they feel their safety threatened, they might start clutching at straws and anyway in the end, they will never let you win.
I do not know if these things will be useful for exposing pathological liars before they can cause any damage, anyway I have tried!