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Big-Time Liars: Top 7 Lies They Tell Themselves

The road to deception is paved with self-deception

For 13 years, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain maintained what he called a "friendship" with Ginger White, in which he gave her money to pay her bills, and his wife never knew anything about it until now. Ginger White claims that it was an affair; she kept it from her (now grown) children all this time, and only recently had the big talk with them. Newt Gingrich has acknowledged his multiple affairs, and implicitly, all of the lies that sustained them.

Big time liars are hardly unique to the political domain. Too close to home (with regard to my professional identity), a social psychologist was recently busted for fabricating a long and seemingly distinguished career's worth of data. There are, of course, the memoirists whose supposed life stories were actually filled with fiction, the plagiarists who make a name on other people's work (until they are caught, whereupon they make a different sort of name for themselves), the fake warriors, the purportedly accomplished athletes who actually cheated and lied their way to victory, and so many more varieties of big-time liars.

The lies that the big-time liars told all of us are intriguing. Perhaps even more fascinating are the lies that they told themselves. What were they thinking?

Over the years, my colleagues and I have collected hundreds of stories about the most serious lies in people's lives. We collected stories from the liars (about the most serious lies they ever told anyone else) and from the targets of the lies - the dupes (about the most serious lies anyone ever told them). After reading transcripts of the stories over and over again, I realized that there were predictable ways that liars fooled themselves about how the process of deceiving another person was going to unfold.

In my book, Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives, I discussed each of the most common ways that liars lie to themselves. Here, I will share parts of the discussion of two of the self-deceptions, and list five more. The excerpts are adapted from Chapter 14. You can read the full discussion of all of the self-deceptions, as well as the rest of the book, in paperback here, from Amazon here, or on Kindle here.

Excerpt from Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives:

Thinking of lying? Join the club. Many people who find themselves in a difficult or threatening situation are tempted to try to lie their way out of their troubles. To liars, lies are like wishes. If only their lies really were true, life would be so much kinder, more indulgent, and carefree. And so liars egg themselves on, by telling themselves the following lie myths. I think they are best considered as self-deceptions--lies that liars tell themselves.

#1. "I can get away with this lie."

Few liars embark upon the telling of a serious lie thinking that they are going to get caught. More commonly, they think they can pull it off. My advice to them is, "Don't count on it." Despite their generally high expectations for getting away with their lies, about 40% of the liars in our research were eventually found out.

Liars can develop an inflated view of their chances of success not only because they overestimate their own lie-telling skills, but also because they fail to appreciate the extent to which the fate of their lies is out of their control. If just one other person is in on the lie, if just one other person knows about the lie, or if just one other person knows about the bad behavior that the lie was meant to hide, then all of the lie-telling skills in the world will not save the liar from the risk that the lie will be leaked by that one other person.

Liars usually do realize that the targets of their lies can become suspicious and then try to check out their suspicions. But they are not always fully tuned in to the magnitude of those suspicions or the extensiveness of the target's efforts to learn the truth. Further, some dupes are adept at hiding their suspicions; thus, they can be getting closer and closer to the truth as the liar remains blissfully oblivious. This combination of a clueless liar and a shrewd and sensitive dupe often ends on a shocking note for the liars--they discover all at once that they have been completely undone.

#2. "No one will ever challenge me - I'll make sure of it."

#3. "Even if my lie is discovered, I can make it up to the person I deceived. Eventually, we can have just as good a relationship as we had before."

#4. "I have their best interests in mind."

#5. "I'm going to confess - later."

#6. "This is just between the two of us."

#7. "If I can get away with this lie, there will be no costs to telling it."

Most people who are about to tell a serious lie have no idea just how much work it is to maintain the lie. They are obsessively preoccupied with escaping detection, and insistently tell themselves that if only they can forever avoid detection, all will be well. I do not think this is merely self-deception. Rather, would-be liars are often genuinely oblivious to the intensity and the scope of the burdens of concealment. They don't realize how hard it is to protect their serious lie until they've tried.

As long as their lies remain hidden, liars live under the constant threat that someday someone will stumble upon them or dig them up. If the liars live, work, or socialize with people who are most likely to discover the lies, then the liars are stuck doing constant maintenance work to keep their lies well protected and in good repair. They may need to tell lots more lies to cover the first big one, and then, once they do that, they need to do all the work of trying always to remember which particular lies they told to which particular people (and which of those people may have repeated their lies to which other people). This is hard work, it is annoying, and it takes up mental space that most people would far prefer to devote to more comforting thoughts. What's more, it can be a source of great anxiety and stress. Many people who are nurturing a serious lie are living their lives in fear.

Even if their lies are never discovered, many liars still need to deal with their own guilt and shame. (Continued in Behind the Door of Deceit.)

[Note: My other books on deception include The Hows and Whys of Lies; The Lies We Tell and the Clues We Miss: Professional Papers; and Is Anyone Really Good at Detecting Lies: Professional Papers (co-authored with Charles F. Bond Jr.).]

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