Why We Lie; Deception at Work

Why We Lie; Deception at Work

Jacob Stein

WHY WE LIE: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind. By David Livingstone Smith. St. Martin’s Press. 238 pp. $24.95

DECEPTION AT WORK: Investigating and Countering Lies and Fraud Strategies. By Michael J. Comer and Timothy E. Stephens. Gower Publishing. 459 pp. $185

Read Time:
3m 54sec

Whatever is alive is at peril. Whatever is alive must compete for food and a mate while protecting itself against predators. Mendacity proves helpful in all three endeavors. But when lying occurs within the tribe, it weakens communal bonds and threatens the tribe’s survival. That’s why it must be punished by relentless prosecutors seeking perjury convictions.

Outside the tribe, lying remains the weapon of choice. Millions are spent on camouflage, false clues, misinformation, and double agents. We come by our talent for lying by evolutionary prescription. Our animal lineage reveals a densely woven fabric of trickery and dissimulation. Henry W. Bates, the Victorian naturalist, noticed that a butterfly with poor defenses against predators would imitate the coloration and movements of a nasty bully of a butterfly, one with better defenses. Similarly, the North American hognose, a nonpoisonous snake, takes on the coloration and appearance of a cobra when attacked and hisses violently, pretending to strike.

“If someone tells you he always tells the truth, you know you have a liar on your hands,” Groucho Marx once said. In Why We Lie, David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England, observes that we have inherited from our evolutionary ancestors not only the need to be able to lie convincingly, but also the need to detect others’ lies. Better detection skills create the need for better liars. The result is a never-ending evolutionary arms race.

We all believe we have a lie detector between our ears. Judges commonly tell jurors to consider witnesses’ demeanor in evalu ating credibility. Did the witness appear to be telling the truth? Many studies, however, indicate that body language and manner of speech are poor guides for evaluating truthfulness. The scientific evidence, such as it is, suggests that judges who give the standard instruction are really misleading the jury.

Long before Darwin, the common law treated lying as inherent in human nature. The law prohibited litigants from taking the oath and testifying. It was presumed that they would lie. Even a defendant charged with first-degree murder, on trial for his life, couldn’t testify. The religious view was that he had probably already committed one crime and shouldn’t be tempted to compound his Judgment Day problems by committing perjury. England began allowing defendants to testify in 1885. Marshall Hall, a prominent criminal defense barrister, had lobbied for the change in the law, but he came to regret his success. Under the earlier rule, the defense counsel could suggest to the jury what the defendant would have said if only his lips weren’t sealed. Hall found that defendants’ own stories were far less persuasive than his versions.

The CIA and other government agencies use the polygraph to catch liars, but most courts reject it. Judges believe there is too much subjectivity in interpreting the results. What if a device could detect falsehood with the scientific accuracy of DNA evidence? It would place great power in the hands of the enforcer, and induce great apprehension on the part of the enforcee. One’s entire life would be at the disposal of the person with the truth machine. Would we want this?

Smith worries about self-deception, “the handmaiden of deceit.” It helped us ascend the evolutionary ladder, he argues, but “it is no longer such a good option in a world stocked with nuclear and biological weapons. The problem is, we are stuck with it.”

Deception at Work is a compilation of every known technique, fair and foul, for catching liars and getting them to confess. One recommendation is to lie to the suspect: Tell him his partner has confessed, or his fingerprints give him away. The book identifies two principal types of lies. The achievement lie, which is told to get a job or to defraud someone, often concerns the future, whereas the exculpatory lie seeks to conceal past wrongdoing. Alger Hiss, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton wanted to conceal what they had done, so they lied. Perjury cases are predicated on lies about the past.

All of us are playing the game of “as if,” described by Hans Vaihinger in The Philosophy of “As If” (1924). We act as if this illusory world of the senses were in fact reality. We act as if we had free will and were responsible for what we do. We make plans as if we were not under a death sentence. It is by these fictions—shall we say, these lies—that we stride confidently into the future.

—Jacob Stein


About the Author

Jacob Stein, an attorney practicing in Washington, D.C., has written for The American Scholar and the Times Literary Supplement.

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