A woman covering her face with her hands.
Photo: Camila Kukulski

I didn’t lie for a week. Here’s what I learned

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By Isabelle Kirkwood

“I’ve just called the police,” my dad says over the phone. “Stay in that room with Basil and Monty and be absolutely quiet.”

I was 14 years old, tightly nestled in a mudroom between two sleepy golden retrievers in my pyjamas, with a cellphone quivering in one hand. My dad was on his way back from the office, much later than usual, around 9 p.m. We were staying in a rental house in a particularly woody and secluded borough of West Vancouver. My siblings were in Hawaii with my mum, so until the late hours of that night, it was just me and the dogs. Perhaps it was the typical fear an adolescent girl would have in an enormous and unfamiliar house; perhaps it was the sinister forest outside with its horror movie ambience; perhaps it was the taxing loneliness I was feeling during that spring break. Whatever it was, it caused me to concoct a pretty big lie.

Although I quickly convinced my dad on the phone that someone had broken into the house, the truth lingered somewhere in me that no one had broken in. Shuddering at the thought of the police coming and finding nothing, I decided to fling open the cupboards and drawers in my kitchen, to make it appear that someone had been looking for something.

Before my dad arrived home, the police arrived in swaths (West Vancouver police are notorious for not having much to do in such a crime-deficient area). They searched the forest within a few hundred metres’ radius, and questioned me about what I had seen and heard. Soon, I became so irrevocably convinced of my own lie that I managed to persuade myself, my dad and the police of my bogus story. As it turned out, the house was rigged with at least 10 security cameras, which showed me patently orchestrating my hoax, but I fessed up to my dad before they played the footage. I was ashamed and mortified that I wasted so many peoples’ time.

I can safely say this is the biggest lie I’ve ever told in my life, and it’s quite a relief to get it out of the way at the start, because it’s pretty embarrassing. I often try to think about what drove me to make all that up or if I knew the lie would have escalated to that degree.

The untruths we tell in our everyday lives are much more lacklustre, but all lies serve a purpose; all have a degree of intention, design and calculation behind them. In order to measure my own honesty and get closer to the reasons behind why we deceive, I went one week without telling a single lie.

Dr. Victoria Talwar is an associate professor in the Department of Education and Counselling Psychology at McGill University. For 20 years, she has been studying the social and cognitive development of children, including their ability to both tell and detect lies. “Although we consider lying a positive cognitive development in children, we also value honesty in our society,” Dr. Talwar says. “No one wants to be called a liar, but children and adults lie for the same reasons, it’s just the content that’s different.”

Dr. Talwar says frequent lying is associated with delinquency and conditions like oppositional defiant disorder, a condition in children that is identified by a pattern of hostile and disobedient behaviour directed at authority figures.

 
“Although I quickly convinced my dad on the phone that someone had broken into the house, the truth lingered somewhere in me that no one had broken in”

 

She describes a lie as “the deliberate intention to mislead another person.” By the age of four, 90 per cent of children have learned the concept of lying, according to research conducted by both Dr. Talwar and Dr. Kang Lee of the University of Toronto. Although, they found that the ability to successfully deceive isn’t fully developed until age nine.

Based on research from the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology released in 2002, it’s estimated that 60 per cent of adults cannot have a 10-minute conversation without lying at least once. My hope for the week was to explore these motivations in my own life to determine what caused me to tell that big lie when I was 14.

We live in an interesting time when it comes to truth telling. Social media inflation is at an all-time high and trust in our institutions and in each other is at an all-time low. I chose to embark on this week of honesty to see how many times I’d encounter lies in a short period of time, and whether or not it’s really better to just tell the truth.

It was a Friday night at the Rivoli, a casual and raucous bar in the heart of Queen West. The Footprints were going to play live that night in the back room, and I was shooting pool in the billiards hall on the second floor. My opponent was dragging his feet. I sensed he was becoming increasingly dispassionate with the game as he knew he wouldn’t win the first round. We were set up on a blind date by a mutual friend, and it was quite clear we weren’t finding much of a connection.

“So, what kind of music are you into?” I croaked as he cued up across from me.

“Mostly free jazz,” he replied. “You like jazz?”

And there it was. After three vodka sodas and half a game of pool, I beheld my first encounter with the seductive inclination to lie to him. I wanted to tell him I liked jazz music, but I’ve been involved with a jazz musician in the past, and if I was ambivalent to the genre before, I’m certainly no fan now. I anticipated the speech about how free jazz is supposed to sound “improvised” and it wasn’t a conversation I was prepared to indulge.

In an age when Tinder and Bumble are dominating the relationship scene among young people, some interesting figures have emerged about our tendency to lie with our generation’s new courting practices. A study of 1,000 Americans and Brits from the communications research organization OpinionMatters found that 53 per cent of people lie on their online dating profile, with women reported lying more than men by nearly 10 per cent.

So, with my work cut out for me, it was time to ask myself several questions in the split second I had to answer him. Am I lying to portray an insincere but more appealing version of myself? Well, not really. If I wanted to appear more cultured and desirable, I could probably do that through another avenue. Am I lying to make him feel better? To a degree, but that’s still not exactly why I’d want to be economical with the truth here. Am I lying to make this date go smoother? Bingo!

There are three motivations we can use to assess why we lie, and this was one example. “Prosocial lying is when we lie altruistically or lie to be polite to others,” Dr. Talwar says. Many consider these to be the harmless white lies we tell to ease social interactions and ensure we don’t offend those around us. That Christmas gift you pretended you liked? You lied, but it wasn’t just for your own sake. Prosocial lying is often informed by sentiments like compassion and introspection, according to a 2017 study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

A study from McGill University found that 40 per cent of children aged 11 were willing to lie for someone else’s benefit and their own detriment.

One group of researchers suggest that this form of deception can, bizarrely, increase trust in social relationships. Their findings in the Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes journal suggest intentions are considerably more important than deception for developing “benevolence-based trust.”

“Although prosocial lying is considered less negative on the spectrum of deceptive behaviour, it’s still not considered a positive behaviour,” says Dr. Talwar. “We can teach children how to tell the truth, but also how to tell the truth while also being kind.” Perhaps my prediction that a week of pure honesty would turn me into a bitch was slightly off beam. I had found my answer.

“If we’re talking Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra, sure,” I replied to him. “The more avant-garde stuff isn’t really for me.”

I tensed for his reaction. “Yeah,” he shrugged, and he sunk a 15. “It isn’t for most people.” I anticipated that prosocial lies would be the easiest to dispose of and I was correct in that notion. I didn’t have to become the “I just tell it like it is” person I so loathe, but being honest and being unpleasant don’t have to go hand-in-hand. Despite my ability to keep the rest of the night harmonious, there wasn’t a second date.

 

“Am I lying to portray an insincere but more appealing version of myself? Am I lying to make him feel better?”

 

It’s fair to say I came across this sort of lying most frequently during my week. Friends asking me “Do I look OK?” would be met with an honest answer, but still a kind answer. When my dad called and asked me if I had quit smoking, I told him I hadn’t but I was cutting back, which seemed to please him more than me just lying to him. Couching the truth with sympathy is the best way to ease our social interactions without lying.

There was one kind of lie that was difficult to come across during my week of honesty, not because this kind of lie is the most uncommon, but because it’s the most harmful. Dr. Talwar defines the second type of lying as antisocial lying, a form of deception which either deliberately intends to cause harm, or disregards causing harm to other people. As my week was ending, I hadn’t found any instance where I would have told a lie that would hurt someone on purpose, but I was still eager to find out more about this lie. I decided to sit down with a Ryerson student who took me through a seven-month relationship he had with a girl who notoriously told him unnecessary, hurtful lies.

Juan Lacasse* remembers a hot day in August when he, a second-year global management student,  was waiting with baited breath. He was tapping his foot outside the ticket booth of Canada’s Wonderland in Vaughan, Ont., waiting for his girlfriend whom he had not seen in a few weeks. She cheated on him two or three times during their relationship—the last time had pushed them to take a break—but Lacasse was eager to rekindle their relationship, despite her dishonesty.

“I loved her,” he says, looking back. When she arrived, Lacasse became so enamoured, he managed to ignore her continuously glancing at her phone throughout the day. After some food and a ride on Wonder Mountain’s Guardian, his suspicion slowly began to surface. “Can’t keep track of all the boys?” he asked jokingly, unaware of how correct his presumption was.

Lacasse was dealing with the rarest but most toxic kind of lie, the seemingly pointless one that oozes the theatrics and attention many people crave in their otherwise mundane lives. It had been about six months that he’d been dealing with this, and although today wouldn’t be the first time he picked up on her lying, it would be the last. She had, in fact, been texting another guy. A 2011 research analysis found that the average person can spot a lie 50 per cent of the time, and although Lacasse was familiar enough with her lying, he had fallen victim to his own feelings. After seven months of dishonesty, he decided to end the relationship for good.

Dr. Talwar says antisocial lies are more common in children’s development, as they usually involve avoiding guilt when children do something wrong. Although it means children are beginning to develop a sense of what they should and shouldn’t be doing, misleading others to cover up their misdeeds is a behaviour which is and should be discouraged.

Most of us don’t lie this way on an everyday basis. All week, telling the truth often resulted in a cocked neck or two from those who weren’t anticipating honesty, but not too much else. 

The day was overcast as my week of honesty was coming to a close, and the highway was roaring outside my apartment window. I was sitting at my desk, in my sweatpants, with my finger hovering over the little “share” button that would post a photo of my unmade bed, captioned with a summary of my do-nothing sort of day to Instagram. I wanted to post an authentic Instagram photo, with no staging, filters or editing. I had just ended a phone call with my mum, who told me, “Isabelle, you want to be reporting from Afghanistan one day. I’m sure posting one unflattering image to social media will be the least of your troubles.” I was already being ridiculed.

I hit the “share” button with my heart in my throat, astounded by how difficult it was. Most of us curate our feeds so carefully that the idea of throwing an oddball for our friends to see is a daunting prospect. Brimming with anxiety, mortified by how conceited or cliché the post would appear, I deleted the image within the first 45 seconds of posting it. So much for that.

 

“Lies may offer momentary victory, but in the long haul, they only allow us to surrender to reality, and the truth is never worth surrendering”

 

The third type of lie and another major reason why we deceive is to manage how others perceive us or to fuel our own ego. Dr. Talwar calls this form of deception “impression management lying.” The truth is, we are all salespeople; we are constantly selling an idea, an image, a projection of our identities or lives. Social media has allowed us to further augment that reality. Whether we embellish a story to a group of friends or edit our Instagram posts beyond recognition, we are all engaging in a collaborative stretching of truth. We, particularly as millennials, want to hold people’s attention, longing to be perceived as one of a kind and exceptional. I will say lying out of narcissism seems quite commonplace in the realm of American governance these days, particularly if you have a Twitter account. I never realized that the lies political figures such as Donald Trump engage in to make themselves look better has been borne out of similar forms of deception we encounter in everyday life. Saying everything is “huge,” “tremendous” or “incredible,” might make it appear better, although it doesn’t make it true.

We similarly tend to lie about ourselves in social situations which are predicated upon assessment, such as job interviews. A 2003 study from the University of Massachusetts examined the extent to which a job candidate’s deception affected interview outcomes. Candidates who lied the most were rated the most hireable, competent and likeable and were perceived to be just as honest as candidates who lied to a lesser extent. The motive to lie is often hiding right in front of us.

Many psychologists and data scientists tackle the divergence between the impeccable version of ourselves we present on social media and the soul-crushing confessions we make to Google. Instagram, I must admit, does act as the primary channel of my narcissism. But unfortunately, my week of honesty was concluded by a pathetic fizzle instead of some grandiose climax or epiphany of truth. I deleted the photo for the very opposite reason I was going to post it, to manage impressions of myself.

The experience gave me a new pair of eyes when I scroll through my feed, looking wistfully at the beach I’m not on or the food I’m not eating. But despite the artistry of photography and beauty of peeking into someone else’s life, remember that you’re only seeing a spit in the sea compared to what really goes on behind the posing and filters.

My week taught me that detecting our own instances of lying is often difficult, as untruths get lost in the minutia of conversation. I found prosocial lying, the “jazz music” sort of lie, easy to miss because its intention had principle behind it. Learning to navigate social situations with unremitting honesty but also with compassion seemed to fit in.

Secondly, I found that being honest with regards to impression was near impossible for me. In fact, I would venture to say I failed that portion entirely. Our society is beginning to not only normalize, but encourage this form of deception. It’s adopted by our political leaders, espoused by our online behaviour, obscuring the universal reality that we cannot be perfect.

Finally, I noticed that big lies we tell tend to overlap our base motivations. My lie at 14 years old was an unhealthy combination of a desire for attention and social interaction, and an urge to cover my tracks once the lie was out there. Lacasse, who knew firsthand the kind of people who lie for the drama, instilled in me that we must be vigilant in spotting these kinds of lies, and calling them out.

“Learning to lie is like learning to split the atom,” Dr. Talwar says. “Good things came of that, but so did things we had to be concerned about.”

Lies may offer momentary victory, but in the long haul, they only allow us to surrender to reality, and the truth is never worth surrendering.

Going forward from this week, I better understand what my parents taught me, that lying is usually the easiest option but is seldom the ethical one. I have lied since the week of honesty ended; mostly white lies about my runtime on the treadmill or whether the mess in the kitchen was my doing. Honesty takes work, because sometimes deciding between the truth and a lie can be a choice between two equally undesirable prospects.

Although a week of no lying hasn’t drastically altered my truth-telling behaviour, it has allowed me to reflect a bit more on why I tell those lies in everyday life, whether it’s worth the effort to lie and why the truth is rarely worth giving up.

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity

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