The Language of Lies

The human language can convey complex information with incredible efficiency, such as describing uplifting descriptions and philosophies in just a few words. Maybe that is what really sets humanity apart. But language might cause deception and lies. One of the unique attributes of language is the ability to say things which are not. And it is likely that since the advent of language, the lying mechanism is being continuously perfected.

Language and lies are intertwined. The philosopher Umberto Eco has argued that language is what one can be lied about. When the language describes a true reality, it does not really provide new information, but when the communication is untrue the language adds much more. Then, language becomes a tool for guided imagery. A dishonest language is not limited and can describe anything – even things that have never happened. The amazing thing is that lying about reality has a huge impact on the real world, which even increases the temptation and the power of lying.

A study claims that in an average conversation with a stranger, people tend to lie three times during the first 10 minutes. Lying comes naturally – almost as if we are unaware of it. Lying is a well-known political strategy. The amount of fake information during election campaigns and past experiences of the voters become a cycle in which the candidates spread lies and the voters choose what to believe (sometimes while lying to themselves).

The power of a lie is so strong, one might think that, language should have evolved into total mistrust, miscommunication and even the loss of the language itself (this could be an interesting interpretation of the Tower of Babel where the culture of lies led to miscommunication and a disperse of the population). But telling lies is a tough job that requires sophistication, memory, the control of emotions and planning. In addition, falsehood is perceived as immoral where someone caught lying may pay a high price. So, we know it exists, we fail in lying on one hand while at the same time try to detect other lies, so it is somehow balanced.

Why do people lie? It turns out that this phenomenon is not unique to humans. Coco, the gorilla, who was taught sign language in the 1970s, blamed her kitten when she, Coco, ripped a sink out of the wall. But why do we humans excel at this? Apparently, the more social the animal is, the more non-real information is transmitted for the purpose of leveraging control and social status. And gradually the ability to lie or detect a lie became a significant survival ability.

On the other hand, society realizes that lying is not healthy and leads to chaos. The Bible tells us “keep thee far from a false matter”. Not only is lying forbidden, but we must keep distant from it. However, revered figures in the Bible are constantly lying. Abraham lied to Pharaoh, Jacob lied about his birthright, Joseph was lying to his brother and David was lying all the time. Even God lies when threatening to punish Adam if he will eat from the forbidden fruit, yet we know he ate from it and did not receive a death punishment…. Modern law does not prohibit lying unless it’s related to legal affairs where it even overcomes the free speech principle.

So overall we are pretty good at it and start developing the art of lying from a very young age. Studies show that 6-month-old babies fake a cry in order to test their environment to see if it works and thus perfect their deception skills even without language. So much so that not a day goes by where they are not engaged in improving this skill. We are so good at it that we are successfully lying to ourselves and truly believe in our lies. We tell ourselves that we’ll start exercising when we only purchase a subscription to the gym, and that this will be our last cigarette, and that tomorrow we’ll start a diet, and more and more.

Lying is not simple, it forces the liar to remember what he/she said and to whom in order to continue and maintain the lie. Indeed, a study at the University of Southern California on pathological liars revealed a change in brain structure supporting more cognitive connections than the average person.

The skill of detecting lies is also evolving. Today, detecting lies is made possible by analyzing changes in body language and even the structure of the language itself. Repeating terms such as “believe me”, “let’s be honest”, and frequent use of formal language indicate suspicion of lying. Increased eye contact is used (contrary to what people might think) as an indication of deceit as well as the shake of the head when saying yes. Studies on the relationship between language and lies in the business world show that managers who lie make use of different vocabulary. For example, instead of “I” they use the word “team” or “company”, they prefer using bombastic descriptions over solid conservative phrases. They often use words like “you know” and tend to use shorter explanations and fewer negations trying to follow a prepared kind of statement.

People are tempted to lie because it pays off with money or status and we all do it to advance our goals. When telling a lie an ethical dissonance occurs, there is a gap between the desire to be moral and trustworthy and the desire to gain from the deceit. This dissonance is morally easier when lying for others or for an important cause. When this happens, we lie to ourselves –telling ourselves a story that justifies the lie and makes us feel less guilty. The problem is that the moment we start to justify lies, we lose sensitivity and might eventually lie for less just causes.

We are all tempted to lie and fail at avoiding lying. In order to avoid this, some companies increase transparency and punishment, which reduces the opportunities and increases the price for lying. However, harsh regulations may cause a feeling of mistrust in the organization. People tend to classify their own lies as minor while the lies of others are perceived as severe and unbearable. The absurdity is that even though we all do it, many of us declare that we really can’t stand liars.

Lies are very common in the business world. Billion dollar suits are filed each year for corporate fraud only in the U.S. Since we strive to be more than we are, the lie makes a simple tool to create a better perception of us. And since lying is built into the human behavior from infancy, once we reach our professional lives, we fake the truth about the organization, product and service every step of the way. A research conducted by the manpower company SHRM found that 53% of the participants lied on their resumes or job interviews regarding salary, recommendations, projects not performed, years of experience or positions. Lying continues beyond the recruitment phase and are common at all levels regarding sick days, project timeline assessments, and more. Lying to clients is especially common while explaining delays and malfunctions or reporting progress on the project while it is quite stuck. The study shows that in a position of power, lying becomes easier and more prevalent among managers. Strong, goal-oriented confident people are easier to justify negative actions and are less likely to suffer from moral dissonance that might prevent the lie.

In marketing and advertising, lies (of promising the moon) occur daily and have become the norm. The misleading marketing information leads to decisions that once again lead to more false information that continues as a vicious endless cycle. Sometimes not telling the whole truth is inevitable in business, and perhaps the popularity of falsehood in the business world leads to forgiveness, but an organizational culture of integrity and trust must be maintained to avoid the temptation of lies, since ultimately lies will not contribute to the company’s prosperity but to its demise.

Freud said that the lie is expressed far beyond the speech and language, and many books have been written about methods of identifying lies by facial expressions and body language. Although this is not an accurate science, these techniques can be used to analyze signals that may indicate a potential for lying. And as science develops it introduces systems for tracking and analyzing eye movements, brain scans, and infrared systems decoding signals that the body sends during such instances. In the future this technology will probably be more available, but it’s unclear whether it’ll have a more positive than negative impact.

One might think that telling a lie is bad, that it is a negative normative behavior. However, true and false are related to physical facts about the world (for example: “Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world”) or an analytical statement (“2 + 2 = 4”), yet good and bad are not factual but rather normative statements (“Being filthy rich is bad”, “It is good to know math”). Indeed, it is sometimes justified to lie, for example, to confuse the enemy, for the sake of peace in the home or to avoid unnecessary grief for a terminal patient. The false statement itself does not have a normative value, and society is the one to determine whether it is proper or not.

Language has the power to express true or false statements as well as to create paradoxes. For example, the paradox known as the “Liar paradox”. This paradox is illustrated by the statement “I am lying now”. If this statement is true, then I am a liar and therefore the statement cannot be true. However, If the statement is false, then I am telling the truth, which contradicts the statement. There are different variations to this paradox. The oldest version is called the Epimanides Paradox, where Epimanides said “All the Cretans are liars.” And since he himself was a Cretan, then he himself is a liar and if so then his statement cannot be true. Another known variation of the paradox exists in a multiple choice questionnaire with 4 possible answers, the first 3 are incorrect and the fourth is “None of the answers are correct”. Language is a fundamental mean to produce lies and even paradoxical statements.

What is a lie? The lie requires three conditions: A false claim, the speaker believes that the claim is not true, and that the statement is said in order to mislead (the cruelty of lying is that you can only lie to those who believe you). These three conditions do not include white lies whose purpose are not to mislead but rather are told with good intention in mind.

But maybe lying is a good thing. Maybe the lies are what pushes society to progress. Perhaps the logical scientific pursuit is not only due to the desire to understand the world, but perhaps to seek irrefutable logical principles that will enable humanity to identify what is true and what is false, to discover the liar. Maybe you can’t live without lies. In his book “Born Liars”, Ian Leslie says that lying is necessary for survival and for society. Primitive life in groups force the use of tactics and deception to survive and not be rejected. We prefer to think that our human progress is a result of hard work and motivation and not fraud and deception. Professor David Livingston-Smith in his book “Why We Lie” states that a human is a deceiving animal because of the fruits that the deception has reaped for our ancestors, and those we harvest until this day.

Indeed, not all lies are equal, society does not always object to lies – for example, when they are not offensive or when they are considered white lies. One might say that lying is inevitable, perhaps even recommended in some cases while excessive use of them is denounced by society.

Lies are everywhere and life without lying can be unpleasant. It is hard to hear the truth, it’s hard to hear what people really think of us, about how we look, the quality of our work or our cooking. The refined lie provides a layer of protection from the bitter truth, which we sometimes prefer to hide deep within us.


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