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Deception

  • Psychologists study the causes and consequences of lying as a element of deception.

  • Deception also involves nonverbal cues, situational props, omissions, and inferences that misdirect listeners.

  • Commonly, the real target of this deception is ourself, as we seek confirmation of our self-identity.

There is a large body of research in psychology regarding how and why people deceive one another. Much of this focuses on lying—that is, telling things to others—and sometimes to ourselves—that aren’t true. So understood, deception is a matter of self-reporting. We can either relay our “real” understandings to people or we can do the opposite.

All of us tell untruths, at least in small ways. Whatever the circumstances, we compliment a friend on the meal they prepared for us. We tell our child they played well at the concert or sports event when results would indicate otherwise. As we see it, their self-esteem—and our relationship to them—is much more important than compulsive frankness on our part. For similar reasons, we try to spare them some of the “gory details” of our life history, including previous relationships. We expect them to be considerate of us in the same way.

That said, we try to avoid more serious kinds of misreporting. The past may be past, but we shouldn’t invent significant information about who we have been and what we have done. Nor should we lie about things we are doing currently. People who won’t reveal their doings to their loved ones (perhaps skipping work to go shopping or bar hopping) are asking for trouble.

Being caught in a lie is a bad circumstance. Being judged a liar, in a more general sense, is much worse. If someone lies to us (and we know it), what else are they lying about? What are they hiding? Profoundly, we wonder if we can trust them to be the person they say they are.

Lying—and, consequently, being caught at it—sets off a complicated set of justifications. When these prove fruitless, apologies and atonements are in order. What becomes clear is that we have “lost face” before someone whose good opinion we care about. In the doghouse, we want to get out.

The most unrepentant souls, and surely the hardest to deal with, are those who believe their own lies. Indeed, if I believe some widely acknowledged falsehood (think of denials of the Holocaust, climate change, and fair elections), am I “lying” when I spread those mistruths? Don’t I have a right to “my opinion”? Putatively, saying what I think (subjective reality) trumps the factual reality of publicly verified information. Mental calculation of this type reaches an extreme state in those suffering from narcissism, borderline personality disorder, and even deeper forms of psychological disturbance.

Information control as impression management

I’m interested in lying as I just described it—that is, as a kind of false reporting of what we “really think” or “really did.” However, most of us are clever enough not to get caught in outright lies. Instead, we manage information.

That was the theme of the noted sociologist Erving Goffman. In a series of books, Goffman explained how people try to manage the impressions others have of them. Their purpose in doing so is to maintain an “idealized” public identity—essentially, a preferred way of being seen and deferred to.

Verbal statements—what we say about ourselves, other people, and the situations we’re in—are one way of supporting that identity. In that light, Goffman acknowledged that people sometimes lie to achieve their ends. Exposed by a lie, that identity plummets and must be rebuilt. However, Goffman’s main concern was other, more subtle ways we massage, modify, or even mispresent accounts.

As he saw it, people dramatize their lives much like actors in a play. They play many roles—essentially, versions of themselves. They adapt those roles to different audiences. They use all manner of stagecraft. Unlike professional actors, they typically play themselves. Differently also, their performances are not confined to the occasion at hand; instead, they are judged to be indicators of their overall identity and character. And pretending to be something one is not, the job of the stage actor, is held to be a very bad thing.

With that said, let’s consider some of the ways we real-life actors convince others we are who we claim to be.

Nonverbal behavior

People judge us by what we say: They scrutinize also how we say it. For that reason, we regulate a range of vocal tones, facial expressions, and bodily movements. Control of the eyes is especially important. Indeed, the listener may say to the suspected liar, “Look at me.” The skilled prevaricator will do so.

Not “looking guilty” may also mean adopting a hearty and direct manner. Appropriate facial expressions—people read these—are key. So is erect, nontense posture. Control of physical distance and bodily touching is part of the act. The suspicious individual will lurk around the edges of social circles. Their modes of touching, such as their handshake, will be weak and evasive. That tentative, distracted behavior will be especially apparent when they think they are “off-stage” or otherwise out of view. At least that is what most of us think. Again, the skilled deceiver adapts to those judgments.

Who among us hasn’t tried to convince an authority figure that we are “sick,” even when we aren’t? We employ a weak, quavering voice. We languish pathetically: eyes closed, mouth open, and head lolled back. Released from the prospect of school or work, we recover admirably.

Props and settings

We’ve all heard the expressions “dress for success” and “fake it ‘til you make it.” Much of that means assembling the physical accoutrements of an idealized self. Bankers, professors, and medical doctors are held to different standards; however, all want to radiate competence. That means proper costuming and physical equipment (essentially, tools of the trade). Include an “office” or other organizational setting. There should be support staff—generally, the more the better—to make clear the status of the key performer. Fancy-looking charts (now computerized) add to the spell of competence. Even when the information provided is shaky, it seems to be true.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who ask us for money at parking lots, sidewalks, and intersections. Are their stories true? Downcast expressions, exaggerated politeness, and shabby clothing help convince us. Who wants to give money to a bright and bouncy panhandler—or to patronize a financial advisor who looks destitute?

We all manage impressions. False eyelashes, fancy clothes, expensive briefcases, and shiny cars are parts of the act.

Believing our own act

Like the player of the sick role, our real intent may be to convince ourselves that we are what we say. (After all, we can always “feel better” later.) The boosterish businessperson wants to feel successful, the professor, wise. Who doesn’t wish to believe—after they have done something stupid, mean, and deceitful—that they are still a “good parent,” “devoted spouse,” and “concerned friend”? Our rationalizations help us accomplish that.

Because we have such a wealth of information about ourselves, these justifications are easy to find. But—and many have said this—we may also be the easiest persons to fool. All of us have substantial values, interests, and biases, many of them undeclared. We tell ourselves certain things (perhaps staying late at work to “support our family”) when there are more honest reasons (we are a workaholic who prefers job to home and office buddies to family).

Who doesn’t accept the famous encouragements to “know thyself” and “to thine own self be true”? However, there are many versions of self-identity, and often it is unclear which of these we should honor. We tell ourselves stories to explain why playing golf today was more important than being with our spouse, why shopping for a new outfit outranks working in the yard. Do we deceive ourselves with our boasts and justifications? Let the reader decide.

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