According to Dr David Craig, everyone lies. All the time. Whether it’s a small white lie to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings, or something more serious, none of us are blameless. Often we lie several times an hour when we’re in company. And apparently we’re all a lot better at lying and fooling others than knowing when we’re being lied to.
This morning Dr Craig was interviewed by Richard Aedy on Life Matters about his book Lie Catcher – become a human lie detector in under 60 minutes. I haven’t yet read the book and I don’t know that I will, but it did get me thinking.
According to Craig, there are lots of “tells” when we lie. Physiological reactions including everything from quickened breath and increased heart rate to trembling hands. Then the cover-up actions that try to disguise our instinctive responses. The “micro expressions” featuring on the TV program Lie To Me are real. But they are over within 1/25 of a second, so you have to be quick to catch them. Even so, if lie detecting is so easy that we can learn it in under 60 minutes, how come we’re all not a whole lot better at knowing when we’re being lied to?
My suspicion is that there might be an evolutionary advantage to our poor ability to detect lies, something to do with the need to fit in with the group, easing communication and preventing friction. We keep up the illusion of civilisation by believing what we want to believe. But there’s a cost, obviously, attached to our gullibility. The potential to get ripped off by a real estate agent or car salesman. Or, more seriously, making a mistake when sleeping with someone or choosing a life partner. Not recognising the signs of someone in distress before it’s too late, preferring to believe that everything’s okay…
Then there’s another kind of liar, one whose lies I’m always desperate to believe.
Over the weekend, I attended a workshop at the NSW Writers Centre with Kristen Tranter, author of the novel, The Legacy (which I’m three-quartes the way through and don’t want to end). The novel is about friendship, lies, half-truths and self-deception. It’s a mystery, of sorts, psychological suspense. The first-person narrator is a young Australian woman who travels to New York in the aftermath of 9/11: Julia Aspers – Ju-LIAR, perhaps, because she’s definitely untrustworthy. But while Julia is untrustworthy, she’s totally believable as a character. With Julia, Tranter captures a truth that I don’t often get to appreciate in the news. It’s an emotional truth, a sense that this is how human beings are with themselves and one another – complex and flawed; lonely, lusting and confused.
I lie. You lie. Fiction writers lie for a living. But only in the best fiction do I forget I’m suspending my disbelief.
For a much more erudite take on the truth and fiction, see this recent NY Times articleby William Egginton.