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In day-to-day life we probably go about our business trying to be a pretty decent person. By the time we reach a basic level of maturity associated with adulthood we don’t even stop to think about what that means. Be gracious and generous. Don’t insult people. Don’t be rude. And don’t lie.
Ah, that last one actually gets a little complicated. By the time we’re adults we’ve come to know what a “white lie” is — especially if we’re in a long-term relationship.
“No, really, the steak is grilled perfectly.”
“You look great in that dress.”
These may be stereotypical clichés, granted, but you get the point. There is a difference between telling the precise truth about your perception of a situation and what you deem to be best given the social situation and the nature of the relationship of the person you’re speaking to. The complexity of that sentence and everything it implies points to the complexity of the nature of telling the “truth.”
In an article for Scientific American, Theodor Schaarschmidt writes, “how much do researchers know about lying in our daily existence? How ubiquitous is it? When do children usually start engaging in it? Does it take more brainpower to lie or to tell the truth? Are most people good at detecting untruths? And are we better at it than tools designed for the purpose? Scientists exploring such questions have made good progress—including discovering that lying in young children is a sign that they have mastered some important cognitive skills.”
Lying is like any skill. We go through a process of learning and then mastering it. First comes unconscious incompetence, then conscious incompetence, then conscious competence and finally unconscious competence. If you’re at that final stage, then you’re adept at easily flattering someone with a white lie — and, one hopes, not so adept at blatantly twisting the truth to your advantage.
Schaarschmidt notes how the process plays out with children. “Before starting their careers as con artists, children must first acquire two important cognitive skills. One is deontic reasoning: the ability to recognize and understand social rules and what happens when the rules are transgressed. For instance, if you confess, you may be punished; if you lie, you might get away with it. The other is theory of mind: the ability to imagine what another person is thinking. I need to realize that my mother will not believe that the dog snagged the last burger if she saw me scarf down the food. As a step to developing a theory of mind, children also need to perceive that they know some things their parents do not, and vice versa —an awareness usually acquired by age three or four.”
In adults who have matured properly, all of this is second nature — they have arrived at unconscious competence when it comes to telling the truth as they see it and appropriately telling “white lies.”
That’s the point at which researchers become really interested in the process. Is there something in the brain that is overriding a person’s desire to tell the truth? “Current thinking about the psychological processes involved in deception,” writes Schaarschmidt, “holds that people typically tell the truth more easily than they tell a lie and that lying requires far more cognitive resources. First, we must become aware of the truth; then we have to invent a plausible scenario that is consistent and does not contradict the observable facts. At the same time, we must suppress the truth so that we do not spill the beans — that is, we must engage in response inhibition. What is more, we must be able to assess accurately the reactions of the listener so that, if necessary, we can deftly produce adaptations to our original story line. And there is the ethical dimension, whereby we have to make a conscious decision to transgress a social norm. All this deciding and self-control implies that lying is managed by the prefrontal cortex — the region at the front of the brain responsible for executive control, which includes such processes as planning and regulating emotions and behavior.”
So, if you thought that simply being a good person meant telling the truth all the time, then you might be interested Schaarschmidt’s full article. The psychology behind lying and telling the truth is anything but simple.