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Out of Mind: Pants on Fire

Samineh I. Shaheem
Filed on February 1, 2014

Lying is scientifically considered to be an evolutionary facet of life.

If you haven’t figured out what this week’s article is about, let me remind you of the rest of the phrase children used to scream at each other. ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’ How ironic that a statement that’s supposed to highlight a lie, is a lie itself; a preliminary indication of the complex and often confusing psychological elements associated with the way we manipulate the truth. Lies are words or actions used with an intention to deceive another person or our self. Dorothy Rowe, author and psychologist explains that a lie is a fantasy that we can structure the way we want. Lying is easy. All we have to do is to make up a story.” Some actually base their lives around these fictitious stories, resulting in identity fragmentation and psychological health concerns.

If told once in a while and with sufficient confidence, lies are likely to be believed. We dodge the title, but most of us are guilty of shaping and designing the truth, some up to 11-15 times a week, mostly in the afternoons and evenings. These lies are packaged in all shapes and sizes. The friend who complains of not losing weight but forgets to mention the amount of chocolate she consumes regularly (lying by omission) or the potential employee whose resume is an extended lie-fest (lying through exaggeration).

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts conducted a study which involved recording strangers talking for ten minutes. The strangers claimed they had been completely honest but once the recording was played it was discovered that 60% of the subjects lied at least once during the short conversation.

When does lying start? Apparently we begin molding the truth at around 2 or 3 years old. The art of telling tales is actually learnt from parents and children’s main motivation is to avoid punishment. It may seem shocking to hear toddlers lying through their tiny teeth but this is actually a sign of their cognitive development. Studies have found that 4 year olds tell lies at least once every two hours and 6 year olds fib every 90 minutes!

Perhaps even more intriguing than frequency, we should delve into exploring the motivations behind lying. While some people take this habit to a pathological level and can’t finish a sentence without inserting an element of falsehood, there are others who claim nobility in their tall tales and only ever tell “white lies”. These white lies are considered to be harmless, often told either to avoid hurting another person’s feelings (e.g., “No, you don’t look fat in that dress at all”), for the sake of convenience or to avoid certain consequences (e.g., “I’m on my way” when you have barely got out of bed).

There are a multitude of other reasons for lying and some of these include:

  • To gain respect
  • Avoid consequences of a mistake
  • Protecting other people from getting hurt
  • To present a better first impression
  • To get a job or place at a university
  • To please others
  • To appear more accomplished or successful
  • To gain trust
  • To flatter
  • To appear more attractive to potential mates or potential bosses
  • To fit in and align ourselves with others
  • To protect our privacy
  • To prevent social stigma

Psychologists believe that lying is mainly motivated by the ‘pleasure principle’, which centers on the notion of life’s main goal of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. A fear of consequences such as getting fired, rejected, sued or hurt may act as external propellers for us to jump into a world of tales. There are also internal consequences, of believing our own lies, that we may be looking to avoid such as facing reality, accepting responsibility for our actions and resisting change.

Lying is scientifically considered to be an evolutionary facet of life. According to research, it helps in interacting with others and in eliciting support. A study conducted by researchers of Trinity College in Dublin found that apes and monkeys employed lying tactics whenever they needed to elicit cooperative behavior. Hence, lying becomes an act of self-preservation whilst at the same time helps in sustaining a society that is based on relationships. Perhaps that’s where the phrase ‘stop monkeying around!’ comes from.

There are many truths about lies and each situation is uniquely shaped and motivated. Even though there are countless explanations and reasons for lying, they shouldn’t be used as legitimate justifications to continue being dishonest to yourself and others. No matter what, eventually the tangled web of fabrications imprisons the liar and hurts loved ones who instinctively want to trust, bond and feel secure. As Nietzche said, “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”


Samineh I. Shaheem is an assistant professor of psychology, author, learning & development consultant and owner of Life Clubs UAE. She has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, and now the UAE. She co hosts a radio program on 103.8 FM Dubai Eye (Psyched Sundays, Voices of Diversity 10-12pm) every Sunday morning discussing the most relevant psychological issues in our community. Twitter: @saminehshaheem/Facebook: Life Clubs UAE. Please forward your thoughts and suggestions for future articles to OutOfMindContact@gmail.com


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