The Truth is Out There...Unfortunately, So Are the Liars
Legal Defense & Research Trust
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Web site: Barbara Hartwell vs. CIA
"Xena Carpenter" (identity unknown)
For the money.
To get away from a mean boss.
To escape embarrassment.
For a good laugh.
To stay out of jail.
Avoiding punishment is the most common reason, says Paul Ekman, a University of California, San Francisco, psychiatry professor who has studied lying for three decades. He's talking about serious lies -- the kind that could get you in big trouble -- not the little, white your-haircut-looks-great lies.
Remember Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who in 1994 strapped her two boys into the car and sent them into a lake to drown. She tried to stay out of trouble by going on TV, saying her sons were kidnapped and pleading for their safe return.
The flip side of why people lie is for gain:money, power, approval.
Pretty simple so far. Other motivations, though, are tougher to understand. Why would these successful people concoct phony stories about their pasts?
Larry Lawrence, a wealthy Democratic Party donor and U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, lied about being in the Merchant Marine during World War II and fabricated a story of struggling in icy waters after his ship was torpedoed.
Judge James Ware of the U.S. District Court in San Jose had his hopes for a promotion sunk after he admitted last year to making up the story of his brother being shot dead by white racists as he watched.
Ekman has looked at both cases. He notes that the lies were devised before Ware and Lawrence became so prominent. People liked the stories, so they stayed in each man's repertoire. "It becomes part of their life," Ekman says. "They almost believe it is true."
Lawrence died last year, before his lie was revealed. Ware has said he was drawing attention to the effects of racism.
Halford Fairchild, a psychology professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, is among those who offer less favorable explanations for self-aggrandizing stories.
"They get a lot of attention from it," says Fairchild. "It paid off for the person. A lot of people had sympathy for the person."
Private lies snowball
B.G. Burkett, a Dallas stockbroker and Vietnam veteran, has taken an interest in exposing phony war stories -- and he's had plenty of work.
He says bogus war stories allow people with low self-esteem to be linked with loyalty, faithfulness and courage.
Sometimes people seem to have it all together "and yet underneath they really do suffer from self-esteem problems," says Charles Ford, a psychiatry professor at the University of Alabama School of Medicine and author of "Lies! Lies!! Lies!!!: The Psychology of Deceit."
"People often lie about things trying to feel better about themselves," Ford says.
These lies can start in private, among friends, then slip out of the liar's control, says Leonard Saxe, a psychologist at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who studies lying. "They tell a lie about their past perhaps in private -- the equivalent of locker-room boasting -- and they never expect it to be made public."
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Spencer Dukes was a celebrated figure at March Air Force Base and a speaker on the plight of prisoners of war. In 1996, however, it was revealed that Dukes had made up his story about being in the infamous Bataan Death March during World War II.
In a recent interview, Dukes, 79, of Riverside, said he started telling the bogus story around 1981. "It just snowballed with a few people and it kept going and going," Dukes said.
He added, "I probably pushed it a little bit."
No turning back
Once a story is widely known, the liar may feel recanting is not an option. Besides, getting away with the lie the first time creates momentum. "Now it's easier to say it a second time and embellish it a little bit," says Jerald Jellison, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California.
Or the liar may start to believe the lie. "The stories that we repeat to ourselves, over time they take on their own reality and you don't realize what the original truth was," Saxe says.
Then again, some lies are devised purely for the joy of pulling something over on someone. Ekman calls this "duping delight." He likens it to a teen-ager who tells his dad he saw a different movie than the one he actually saw, not for fear of getting in trouble, but just for fun. "They're simply getting the kick out of lying, the risk of lying and being able to control the other person," Ekman says.
At the other end of the spectrum, a person may lie because psychologically he cannot acknowledge the truth -- even to himself. For example, a killer won't confess because he just can't believe he could have done it.
"That might get a bit more into irrational reasons, to save their sanity," says Fairchild. "There are people who can do that and would take a lie detector test and would pass it."
Resentment greets truth
The response of those who are lied to can also seem out of touch with reality.
Consider the reaction Burkett gets when he exposes phony war stories. Instead of getting angry at the liar, people often get angry at Burkett, he says. That's because people love a good story. And because exposing the lie calls into question everyone's tales of military exploits.
Plus, "we all want to know a hero," Burkett says. "It's like schoolboy adulation."
Essentially, these people are facilitating the lies, Burkett says.
That thought leads to another consideration. Whether people lie depends on their environment -- the likelihood of getting caught and what will happen if they are caught.
Lying often works because people don't stand much chance of getting caught. "It pays to lie on your resume," says Ford. "That's why people do it. It helps them get jobs."
Reporter Janet Cooke lied on her resume when she applied to the Washington Post and on a resume she submitted to the Pulitzer Prize committee. This was discovered only after she had won a 1981 Pulitzer for her story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. That led to unmasking an even bigger lie: She had faked the winning story.
Sometimes a liar goes unchallenged because the lie serves someone else's purpose. In his 1985 book, "Telling Lies," Ekman recounts a fateful meeting between Adolf Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. In 1938, Hitler had already decided to invade Czechoslovakia, but told Chamberlain he wouldn't invade if the Czechs would consider redrawing their border with Germany. Chamberlain had reason to suspend critical thinking and accept the lie. To do otherwise would call into question his policy of appeasing Hitler.
On the other hand, the promise of severe punishment for an action increases the likelihood that a person will lie to get out of it. "You didn't think O.J. was gonna 'fess up, did you?," Ford asks.
Of course, individuals respond differently to the temptation. Ekman's research shows three factors affect whether someone chooses to lie:
Their knowledge of how well they can lie. People who are good at it are more likely to.
Whether they're a risk-taker. Lying can be a hoot for people who like to live life on the edge.
People who are observant in their religion are less likely to lie.
Yet there's an obvious limitation to understanding exactly why people decide to lie. The liar's own explanation, when available, is suspect.
"We lie to cover lies," Ford says.