current events

The Psychology of Lying

Lies make the world go round. Especially mothers. As author John Green said, “Mothers lie. It’s in the job description”. We don’t like to call it lying. In fact we invent all sorts of euphemisms for it – gilding the lily, telling tall tales, inventing a fish story, telling a harmless fib, or my personal favorite from Winston Churchill, “Perhaps we have been guilty of terminological inexactitudes”. Lying can be about guilt. Lying can be about fun. Lying can be about nurturing and protecting. Honesty is not always the best policy, primarily because people are complicated. I’ve begun to more deeply understand lying since having a child.


I love my little boy. I love being a mommy. I even immortalized my sons name in a principle of community mobilization than I called “The LUKA Principle”. I never really thought much about being a mom, so I had no grand plans to follow, no real idea of how I wanted to raise a child. Strangely, the more I suppress my expectation, the more pleasantly surprised I am at the little aspects of motherhood. It is a wild ride and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love watching my baby (he’s actually a toddler, but he’ll always be my baby) sleep, noting that like all sleeping children he looks like an innocent little angel. I chuckle at the thought that I am supposed to be his moral compass and guide until he develops an ethics and philosophy of his own. And sometimes, you have to guide with a few white. Would you believe we have a very nice ghost in our house that expresses his own TV preferences? Of course we do. Particularly when the choice is between watching The Walking Dead vs. the same episode of Phinneas and Ferb for the 100th time. That’s simple sanity preservation.


Napoleon Bonaparte observed that “History is a set of lies agreed upon”. Lies and lying are a popular news topic these days, particularly with an impending presidential election. As we’ve learned repeatedly in American politics, it’s not usually the lie that gets you in trouble, it’s the cover-up. Ask Bill Clinton, John Edwards, or any of a number of figures caught in their lies. But that’s a whole other discussion centering on stupidity, rather than lying.


Last week, a psychological study was published that found living without lies makes you healthier. Um, sure, sounds like good research (in case you’re wondering, I’m lying). I’m assuming that like most academic studies, the subject pool consisted of undergraduate psychology students. Why? Because nobody who’s been married (or even in a long term relationship of any kind), raised children, or frankly held a real job could possibly believe that finding. The study maintained that lying can be stressful, especially if you have to keep a lie up over time. With 110 participants, half (yes 55) were told to stop lying for ten weeks and the other half were given no instructions. The “no lie” group told on average three less lies and complained of less headaches and anxieties (unless they were lying). What should we take from this: the no-lie group told lies folks! Just told less of them. Makes me wonder what lies they felt compelled to tell despite being in a “no-lie” group? Perhaps they had to convince a three-year old that a toy dog with an incredibly annoying, loud sound was broken (when you had actually removed the batteries). Or refrain from telling your husband that he looks like an idiot in his new Hawaiian shirt that he loves (oops, that one slipped out – see lies can be used very effectively).


Another study recently found that a third of parents lie about the time their children go to sleep. There is so much social pressure on parents these days that the drive to be regarded as the “perfect parent” is a strong one. I’ve never quite understood parents like that. Certainly I want my child to excel, want him to be smart, handsome, decent, and happy, but there is no point in claiming your child has slept in his own bed through the night since birth – people will either rightfully think you are a freak, or assume you are lying. It just doesn’t happen. No one expects it to. No reflection on the parent. Means nothing about the child. Sometimes kids don’t want to go to sleep, or want to sleep in a bed with their parents for comfort, after a bad dream, or just because. It happens, and there is no use pretending it doesn’t. If you’re going to lie, at least work on something believable. Then you’ll stress less and consequently be closer to the perfect parent you’re pretending to be.


I recently confessed to a colleague of how proud I was that my son had told me an outright calculated lie for the first time. Psychologist here, so I like developmental milestones. Said colleague frowned and was quite perturbed, because in their ethical framework, they maintain that no type of lying is good. I went back to my office feeling slightly ashamed. Was I a bad mommy? But I dug down deep into my soul- -that of course being my Google search engine and found research that the earlier a child starts telling “convincing” lies the more likely they are to be smart and successful in later life. I felt good. My little boy was well on his way to becoming the next Bill Clinton or George Bush.

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