What lies beneath?

NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH

What lies beneath?

We all lie; some more than others. Why and how we dodge the truth throws thought-provoking insight on us, not just as individuals, but also as a race, infers Jisha Krishnan.

How would you make a marriage work?Tell your wife that she looks pretty, even if she looks like a dump truck. 
Now, that’s a priceless piece of advice. Not by a marriage counsellor, but a ten-year old. Among the many inane ‘forwards’ in my inbox, I recently chanced upon this gem:

Marriage rules as explained by kids. Despite the smile little Ricky may have brought to your lips, did it also make you wonder where he may have picked up such truth-bending lessons from? Yes, must be the parents! How else do children learn to lie?

Research shows that children as young as two can tell a lie. Sample this: Doggy dropped the food on the floor, really! Or I didn’t eat the chocolate, promise! At that age, though, such creative fabrication is a good sign. It is a proof of cognitive development. Telling a lie – an intentionally false statement, as the Oxford dictionary defines it – is no mean feat.

Many inhabitants of the animal kingdom have their way with lies, but it’s only us, humans, who have mastered the art of deceiving others as well as ourselves. Research shows how human beings often get so caught up in their lies that they are unable to sift fact from fiction.

 A senior marketing executive in Mumbai had been lying to his girlfriend for a long time about his miserable marriage. Somewhere along the line he started believing in his own piece of fiction. “The fact was that I had a loving wife and wonderful son at home. All I wanted was some fun outside of marriage…Just a fling. Nothing serious,” he confides.

Things did get serious, though, and the adulterous husband, eventually, had to face his moment of truth. “My mind was playing games with me. I was lost. Thankfully, better sense prevailed, and I ended the fling,” he says.

  Side-stepping the question of morality, several studies have shown how liars are known to weave a complex web of projected truths. Some innocuous, some dangerous, some wishful, some self-defeating. “As long as you are not harming anybody, it can be a great creative outlet,” argues Meera Tandon, an aspiring writer.

According to a study published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology, most people (about 60 per cent) in the US lie at least once during a 10-minute conversation with a stranger. A similar study in UK claimed that men tell six lies a day, while women settle for half that number. 

“If someone were to do a similar study in India, the numbers wouldn’t be very different. We are all, essentially, the same,” maintains Meera.

From professional achievements to educational qualifications, to romantic conquests to physical attributes, we fib about almost everything. The most common lie for both sexes, the UK study says, is “Nothing's wrong, I’m fine.” We all have been there, said that, haven’t we?

Lies, as we have experienced, come in all hues. The white ones, most like to believe, are harmless. And then, there are times when it’s more convenient than telling the truth, even if you know you are a terrible liar, reckons a young journalist from Bangalore. “Sometimes you just don’t want to hurt the other person, or yourself,” she says, by way of explanation. 

Manjeet, another self-confessed terrible liar, believes that white lies are often an act of kindness. “You genuinely think that you are saving someone grief or embarrassment,” he says. And then, there are situations “when lies act as lubricants in an interpersonal relationship”, maintains the Bangalore-based software engineer.

Social psychologist Robert Feldman makes a similar observation: There are lies that serve the purpose of maintaining social contacts by avoiding insults or discord. “They are ‘make life easier’ kinds of lies,” he writes.

According to Feldman, people are most likely to lie when their self-esteem is threatened. Some lie to make themselves look better (mostly men), while others lie to make the other person feel better (mostly women), he explains. Extroverts, the social psychologist adds, tend to lie more than introverts.

Arguably, we all have been in situations where lying seemed like the best way out. Think: Boss enquiring about your day at the new job, or lady love trying to figure out if the hot pants make her look fat. Truth is not always a smart option. But does the end justify the means?

An interesting study by the American Psychological Association attempted to throw light on why some people lie. They call it ‘the cheater’s high’ – an emotional high experienced after doing something unethical. The crux of the research was that even when there was no tangible reward, people were willing to lie, just for the high it offers. To get away with a lie can be rather intoxicating. Interestingly, people who gained from someone else’s lies also felt good; there was no sense of remorse or anxiousness, contrary to popular expectations.
  It is tempting to point that accusing finger at the liar and his accomplices. But hold on, ‘the gullible victim’ may have to share some of the guilt burden. Remember Jim Carrey in Liar Liar or Govinda in the Hindi adaptation Kyo kii...main jhuth nahi bolta? Beneath all the slapstick, lies the incredible story of far-fetched lies told and believed, over and over again. 

It doesn’t always take a polygraph test – MRIs are also known to do a fine job in a laboratory setting - to detect a lie. According to Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting, lying is a cooperative act. “It works only when someone else agrees to believe the lie,” she argues.

“Ask no questions, and you'll be told no lies” goes the famous Charles Dickens’ line. But let’s face it: Questions will be asked, and whether we like it or not, we have a choice with the response.

If you need a good reason to opt for the truth, here’s one: According to the Science of Honesty study done in the US, telling the truth, when tempted to lie, can significantly improve a person’s mental and physical health. The 10-week study found that instances of melancholy, frequent headaches, sore throats, came down drastically on cutting down the everyday lies. Also, close personal relationships improved and social interactions got better.

“Some said they realised they could simply tell the truth about their daily accomplishments rather than exaggerate, while others said they stopped making false excuses for being late or failing to complete tasks,” said Anita E Kelly, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. There were others who discovered new ways to avoid lying. Respond to a troublesome question with another question, for instance… Anything that’ll distract the other person.

As Aamir Khan says in the promo for his second innings on television, there’s good news and bad news. First the bad: (Not that Khan is back) Lying can be addictive; it’s like a bad habit. Now, for the good news: (Not that we have to endure Khan only five Sundays) Truth is like a good habit, which only gets stronger with practice. So, go on, give truth a chance. Satyamev Jayate! 

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