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On Deception: Understanding Lies in One Simple Step

Lies are like wishes.

Before I turned my attention to research and writing on single people and single life, I spent the first few decades of my professional life studying the psychology of lying and detecting lies. I’ve probably written hundreds of thousands of words on the topic. Here, I want to boil down one of the most important things I’ve learned into just four words.

If you want to know what someone is thinking when they are telling a lie, what the psychology is behind the lie, a lot of times it comes down to this:

Lies are like wishes.

When people tell lies, a whole lot of the time, they are telling you what they wish were true. To decode their lies, all you need to do is put the words “I wish” in front of the lie.

In the diary studies that my colleagues and I conducted, we asked 77 college students and 70 people from the community to write down all the lies that they told every day for a week. They turned in more than 1,500 lies. In a pair of studies of serious lies, participants told us about hundreds more.

Here are some examples of the lies (with some minor edits):

  • My father is an ambassador.
  • I’m not worried about my grades.
  • All our bills are paid.
  • Your muffins are the best ever.
  • Your grandfather is just going into the hospital for tests.
  • I was the star of my high school football team.
  • It is your color (from a salesperson to a customer).
  • Tom likes you (to a woman interested in going out with Tom).
  • Ted and I still like each other.
  • I’m all caught up on my work.
  • You look well; your voice sounds good (to a friend in chemo).

Just add the wish part in front of each of these lies, and you can get a sense of what the liar is thinking and feeling:

  • I wish it were true that my father is an ambassador.
  • I wish I weren’t worried about my grades.
  • I wish all our bills were paid.
  • I wish your muffins were the best ever.
  • I wish your grandfather was just going into the hospital for tests.
  • I wish I had been the star of my high school football team.
  • I wish it were your color.
  • I wish Tom liked you.
  • I wish Ted and I still liked each other.
  • I wish I were all caught up on my work.
  • I wish you looked well and your voice sounded good.

Some of these lies are about the kinds of persons that the liars only wished they could be — the kind of person who is doing so well in school, he doesn’t have to worry about his grades; the kind of person who is so talented athletically that he was the star of his high school football team; the kind of person who is so likeable that Ted would never lose interest in her; the kind of person who is so on top of his work that he is always all caught up.

Sometimes a lie is a shortcut to (sort of) getting what you want. It would be great to work hard all the time, in school and at work, so that your grades are always outstanding, and you are always all caught up. But maybe some classes or some work assignments are just too difficult or too far from your talents and interests, and you think you won’t ever be able to master them. Or maybe you just aren’t willing to work that hard. If it is still important to you to be seen as someone who gets great grades and is always on top of work assignments, then you may be tempted to just lie about it.

Lies can also be shortcuts around difficult truths. The mom who told her son that his grandfather was just going into the hospital for tests just couldn’t bring herself to tell him the devastating truth that his grandfather was dying. That’s understandable, but has long-term costs. My studies of serious lies were filled with stories from people who said that the most serious lie anyone ever told them was a lie like the grandfather one about some person or pet they loved dearly.

The “lies are like wishes” heuristic does not apply to every lie. Here are some examples that don’t fit so well:

  1. Oh, no, it’s not that good (an artist’s response to someone who complimented her on her work).
  2. Sure, I’ll go out with you sometime.
  3. She’s not home (to someone who wanted to talk to the person’s roommate, when the roommate didn’t want to talk to her).
  4. The book I need for my course costs $60. (It only cost $20; he wants his parents to “pity me and send me money.”)

In the first example, the artist is just being modest. She doesn’t want it to be true that her work really isn’t that good. It is good, she knows it is good, and that’s just how she wants it to be.

In the second, she doesn’t really wish that she would go out with him sometime. She’s not interested in him at all. She’s just being polite.

In the third, she isn’t wishing that her roommate wasn’t home. She’s just helping her roommate avoid someone she doesn’t want to talk to.

In the final example, he doesn’t wish that his book cost $60. He just wants his parents to give him $60.

The elephant in the room

I’m back to writing about lies again, because I’ve been inundated with questions from reporters interested in President Trump’s lies and how they are different from most other people’s. (I’ve written about that here and here.) Many of Trump’s lies are also like wishes. For example, on immigration, about the separation of children from their parents at the border, Trump said, "The Democrats forced that law upon our nation." (Here’s why that’s a lie.) Trump wishes that were true. Or consider all the times he proclaims, “Fake news!” Trump wishes all the damning reports about him and his campaign and his administration were false.

Wishful thinking

In the moment, a lie can feel like a quick fix. Just say what you wish were true, and it is almost as if all of your dreams are coming true. The problem (well, one of them) is that sooner or later, the targets of your lies just may wake up. Maybe you will, too.

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