The Sacred Art of Telling It Like It Isn’t (part two)

Welcome back to part two, in which I’ll be talking about lie detection and lie telling, and, just incidentally, reaching a few conclusions.

Detecting Lies:

In the long run, most lies get found out. By which I mean they are revealed as lies. It’s important to note that simply detecting a lie does not automatically uncover the truth of a matter. It’s well known that there have been any number of lies told by various people regarding the assassination of JFK – but knowing that some of these are lies has not helped us to get any closer to the truth. Some questions still remain unanswered.

The result of detecting a lie is not the creation of a clear and unambiguous statement of truth – it is the creation of at least one question, and often more. While it is a necessary stage of uncovering a truth, it should not confused with uncovering the whole truth.

But how do we detect lies? There are a number of methods, none of them foolproof.

Many people will swear by the analysis of body language, tone of voice or even hand-writing. Numerous guides exist to tell you what to look for in a liar using all these things. There are two problems with these methods. The first is that liars read these books too, especially to know what other people will be looking for and to make sure that the audience sees what will make them believe (or, in the case of liars who rely on telling the truth unconvincingly, what will make the audience disbelieve).

The second problem is that these books tend to focus primarily on detecting lies of commission, and to a lesser extent, of omission. They are no good at all in helping you spot a liar who is telling the truth unconvincingly. In fact, if the liar has read the same book as you, they will actually confer an advantage on them, not you.

A more reliable guide to whether or not something is a lie is the exercise of logic. Does the statement make sense? Does it rest on a false premise? If a lie of omission, is the logical structure of what you are told complete? Does it all hold together, or is something more required?

Logic too has its flaws – it is only as good a guide as you are at using it, and if your reasoning contains one or more false premises, it may not be able to detect the false premises of others.

The third means of detecting a lie contains elements of both the other two, but adds a third matter: your own knowledge of the liar.

It is easier to catch a friend lying than it is to catch a stranger lying. After all, you know your friends better. You know the kind of things that they are likely to say, and the ways in which they are likely to express them – and anything that diverges too widely from your normal expectations will set alarm bells ringing.

With a stranger, you cannot rely on any special insight into the person, as you could with a friend. Here, the key factor is your understanding of human nature in general, of the reasons why people lie and the ways in which they chose to do so.

Moreover, no means of detecting lies is useful in every circumstance. A person may have a neurological disorder that resembles the body language you expect of a liar. One lie you suspect may be concealed by another you have believed. And so on.

But a combination of the methods listed above – and any other you might devise (please feel free to share them in the comments section) – will expose most lies. It may not get you any closer to the truth, but at least you’ll know that, to invert Fox Mulder’s catchphrase, the truth isn’t in here.

How to Lie:

If you are going to lie – and, as I stated above, I believe that you are (although not necessarily to me) – it behooves you to give the matter some thought ahead of time.

Before telling a lie, you should always prepare for it.

First of all, know why you are telling it. What outcome do you hope to achieve by lying – and is lying necessarily the best way to achieve it? Know your own motives, even as you seek to conceal them from others.

Secondly, know who the audience for lie is. Who is intended to hear this lie, and how should they react to it? Who is not intended to hear this lie, and how might they react if they do? Most lies will be told only to groups of people – few are told to everyone you know. But the intersection between the group you have lied to and your wider acquaintanceship is a place of vulnerability for lies. If you tell your football team that you weren’t home on Saturday night, but one of them knows someone who called you there at that time, the lie will probably not work in the long term.

This brings us to the third thing you need to work out: how long does the lie need to last? Not all lies need to work in the long term. Some lies are tactical, others are strategic. A tactical lie, generally speaking, is a short term affair. You tell Aunt Jemima that you haven’t been to the shop where you bought her Christmas present, but only until you give her the present – at which point the lie is no longer needed.

A strategic lie is part of a longer term plan. You tell the people that the god Booji appeared to you and told you that we must all do one thing and another, so that you can become a wealthy spiritual leader. This is something you must keep up – if the lie is exposed, your wealth and privilege will dry up shortly thereafter.

Next, you must decide on how you will tell the lie. Will you commit or omit? Will you tell the whole truth unconvincingly, or a part of it convincingly, or falsities in place of truth – or some combination of the three?

Those are the four basic elements of any lie: your motive, your audience, the lie’s duration and the type of lie used. But there are additional matters you may need to take into account. For instance, is the lie you are about to tell in support of another lie? It’s possible to build quite elaborate structures of falsity, but the more elaborate they become, the more fragile they will be. And when one lie collapses, it takes down all those other lies that depended upon it – and calls down greater scrutiny upon any remaining lies.

It is important not to confuse preparation with rehearsal. Preparation is always necessary, but rehearsal may not be – and sometimes, the more rehearsed a thing sounds, the more false it will ring. People rarely rehearse truth-telling, after all.

Finally, the single largest problem faced by any liar occurs after the actual lie is told: many times, perhaps most times, you will not know for sure if your lie has been believed or not. While it may later be possible to infer that your audience was deceived by analyzing their subsequent words and deeds, only such a passive means can be used to determine this. Any more active attempts to discover whether or not a lie was believed will tend only to arouse suspicions or even expose the lie.

You may never know whether your lie has been believed, or whether your audience has merely let is pass unchallenged, and is now just giving you enough rope to hang yourself with.


So, to lie or not to lie? The choice is entirely up to you, but I want to leave you with a few closing thoughts about my own motives for telling you all of this.

Although I have an opposition to most lying on moral grounds, some lies are necessary from time to time. Some of the simplifications we tell children in early science classes, for example, are useful and even beneficial lies. (These lies are explicated in a much better fashion than I could manage here in The Science of Discworld series of books.)

However, my love of and desire for truth is at war with my appreciation of a well-told lie on aesthetic and character grounds. I admire the artistry of a well-told lie, and the chutzpah of a skillful liar – and yet most lies are clumsy, ill-considered things that are told primarily by those vastly over-confident of their ability to deceive. Only good manners (and a keen awareness of the strategic advantages of having someone think that they’ve fooled me) prevent me from pointing this out with much greater frequency than I do.

Lying is not something that I actually do consider a sacred art (anymore than Christopher Brookmyre actually regards stealing as a sacred art). It’s simply something that I encounter on a daily basis, and that I find deeply annoying in many ways.

I have not told you any of these things in order to make you a better liar.

I have told you them in order to emphasize the difficulty of lying successfully and well, and in the hope that making the process of lying more conscious in you will undermine your confidence as a liar, and decrease your willingness to lie.

I have told you to place you in a situation where, in order to lie, you must make a conscious moral choice to do so.

Have a thoughtful day.

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