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In 1955, Erving Goffman stated in his classic, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, that individuals "have ample capacity and motive to misrepresent the facts; only shame, guilt, or fear prevent them from doing so" (58). Charles Ford, in 1996, proves that statement incomplete: "Each individual creates a personal myth--woven from a matrix of facts, self-deceptions, and misrepresentations to others--to help cope with the exigencies of life and internal conflicts" (279).
Ford, a psychoanalyst, attempts to be comprehensive in both the discussion of types of deceit and in the range of reasons for it with minimal moralizing. Biological, anthropological, ethical, developmental, philosophical, social as well as psychological factors contribute to whether and under what circumstances someone will tell a lie. Some people consciously choose to lie for relatively synthetic reasons, whereas, in others, the origin of the lie is more complex. In addition, we sometimes forget that lying is a dyadic process: it takes someone to believe it true for the lie to be effective. It may also be good for evolutionary health since many animals (including those closest to humans, the primates) use deceit to stay alive.
He employs both scholarly studies as well as anecdotal case histories to illustrate the present state of what we think we know about lying and its detection. He explores neurological and genetic possibilities to explain lying on the part of some who cant seem to consciously stop. How to teach children "not" to lie while doing it themselves is a dilemma all parents and childcare givers face. "The child internalizes the need for truthfulness to the parent and may then generalize that all lying or deceit is wrong.... [P]arents do not feel the same constraints in lying to children" (280). His review of the literature on how children learn to lie and how they learn to detect lies is fascinating.
Commonly known reasons for lying that are usually morally unacceptable are those that attempt to avoid punishment, to obtain power, to "put one over" on someone, or wish fulfillment. They are contrasted with the "little white lies" that are usually more morally acceptable: sparing other peoples feelings, helping them in some way or solving relationship conflicts. Therefore, both the teller of the lie and the believer (or one who "goes along" with the charade) can be affected positively or negatively.
However, he is most concerned with how lying to yourself affects yourself and the world around you. "In the final analysis, it is not lying but mutually reinforced self-deception that poses the greatest danger to the individual, society, and humanity" (285) Daniel Goleman states it a bit more poetically: "The ease with which we deny and dissemble--and deny and dissemble to ourselves that we have denied or dissembled--is remarkable. But, ... the minds design facilitates such self-deception" (Vital Lies, Simple Truths, 95). But, "self-deceptive mechanisms help the individual to organize knowledge and maintain goals and to avoid being overwhelmed by the continuing inflow of new, potentially ambiguous or psychologically conflictive information" (35). Ford even states that "[t]o some degree, self-deception is necessary for good mental health," (45) demonstrating that it is not a simple subject to qualify or analyze.
Different types of personality contribute to what kind of lies are told. "Information that threatens the self--that does not support the story one tells oneself about oneself--threatens self-esteem. (Goleman, 98)" According to Ford, different kinds of lies may be told by those with borderline vs. histrionic, antisocial, narcissistic or obsessive-compulsive, etc. disorders. "Pathological" lying is considered to be the most severe and rarest form: Munchausen Syndrome, con artists, those who create an entirely fanciful identity (pseudologia fantastica), and imposters. For these people, deceit (both of self and others) is a full-time occupation. Some imposters are so good at whomever they choose to copy that some wonder whether what they are doing is really immoral. "Where self-esteem is low, ... points of pain[ful memories] are strong. Where these pain nodes lie, ... lacunas perform their protective duty, guarding the self-system from anxiety" (Goleman, 109).
Memory, we have finally begun to realize, is never static: it is always being consciously or unconsciously revised and is integral to lying. One of the biggest dilemmas in psychotherapy is how to deal with historically false memories, since having clients relate their life history to some degree or another is often a critical part of psychotherapy. Studies have shown that time and experiences significantly affect our perception of events. (Donald Spences Narrative Truth and Historical Truth is a particularly good treatment of this problem). Often, the more confident we are of a memory, the less likely it is to have historically happened that way--or even at all. Deceiving ourselves is a fundamental part of this paradox.
I used to participate in an online discussion group concerning depression. A thread about lying to your therapist occupied a considerable amount of time and space. I was amazed and perplexed by how many people admitted to consciously and deliberately lying on an ongoing basis to their therapist(s). I could not understand why people would do that; it seemed a waste of time if youre really trying to improve your mental health. I discussed it with my therapist and his reply was that the lying did not matter in and of itself (I also began to realize that I had lied at times, too, although maybe not so blatantly). It was as much of the therapeutic process of understanding the client as anything else brought to the "hour." Ford agrees that the issue is not the lying itself, but what to do with it. "[T]he exact truth is often not regarded as importantly as what the patient feels at the moment" (242). These lies can run the same gamut as those outside the therapeutic relationship.
How some of us are able to detect lies or, at least, avoid the brunt of them is the other most intriguing section. Ford cites scores of studies that attempt to analyze exactly how we (those of us who actually can) detect liars. He found that are real gender differences; that the more confident we are of a lie, the less accurate we are, in general; that experience (beyond a point) doesnt help; and those who attempt detection for a living are generally not any more accurate than the normal population--with two exceptions.
Fords desire to be comprehensive is generally fulfilled and he cites current and historical studies to buttress his conclusions. He presents provocative and surprising data that raise questions in other areas. However, Golemans Vital Lies, Simple Truths and Spences Narrative Truth and Historical Truth are less turgid in style and more in-depth on psycho-social aspects of the subject, though slightly less current in citations.
Fords treatment of the subject leaves me with several questions:
1. What role does self-deception play in religion? "The supposition of an absolute truth and the need for adherence to this truth is very popular.... Unfortunately, these individuals, in their self-deception that they know the absolute truth, are often only too willing to impose their truths on other persons" (280), but, again, those "others" choose to believe them.
2. What does deception say about the appeal of fictional literature? Is it because it is historically false but narratively true?
3. R. J. Lifton (whom Ford cites) has written extensively about our quest for symbolic immortality. It is guided, in effect, by a concern of Dag Hammarskjold: "No choice is uninfluenced by the way in which the personality regards its destiny, and the body its death. In the last analysis, it is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us ..... Hence, too, the necessity of preparing for it." Do some of us create fantastic deceptions in order to achieve a type of immortality that our common, real lives would not give us?
4. The issue of historical truth and narrative truth has been prominent in current events, most notably in the actions and memories of two Presidents of the United States: Nixon and Clinton. To what degree did we want to be deceived about these events: wishing that they had not happened, rationalizing to ourselves our choice of the most powerful person in the world?
See a related news article: Childhood Memories are Easily Altered, June 3, 1999