Ricky Gervais's new film, The Invention of Lying, is about a world where lying doesn't exist, which means that everybody tells the truth, and everybody believes everything everybody else says. "I've always hated you," a man tells a work colleague. "He seems nice, if a bit fat," a woman says about her date. It's all truth, all the time, at whatever the cost. Until one day, when Mark, a down-on-his-luck loser played by Gervais, discovers a thing called "lying" and what it can get him. Within days, Mark is rich, famous, and courting the girl of his dreams. And because nobody knows what "lying" is, he goes on, happily living what has become a complete and utter farce.
It's meant to be funny, but it's also a more serious commentary on us all. As Americans, we like to think we value the truth. Time and time again, public-opinion polls show that honesty is among the top five characteristics we want in a leader, friend, or lover; the world is full of woeful stories about the tragic consequences of betrayal. At the same time, deception is all around us. We are lied to by government officials and public figures to a disturbing degree; many of our social relationships are based on little white lies we tell each other. We deceive our children, only to be deceived by them in return. And the average person, says psychologist Robert Feldman, the author of a new book on lying, tells at least three lies in the first 10 minutes of a conversation. "There's always been a lot of lying," says Feldman, whose new book, The Liar in Your Life, came out this month. "But I do think we're seeing a kind of cultural shift where we're lying more, it's easier to lie, and in some ways it's almost more acceptable."
As Paul Ekman, one of Feldman's longtime lying colleagues and the inspiration behind the Fox TV series "Lie To Me," defines it, a liar is a person who "intends to mislead," "deliberately," without being asked to do so by the target of the lie. Which doesn't mean that all lies are equally toxic: some are simply habitual—"My pleasure!"—while others might be altruistic. But each, Feldman argues, is harmful, because of the standard it creates. And the more lies we tell, even if they're little white lies, the more deceptive we and society become.
We are a culture of liars, to put it bluntly, with deceit so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we hardly even notice we're engaging in it. Spam e-mail, deceptive advertising, the everyday pleasantries we don't really mean—"It's so great to meet you!" "I love that dress"—have, as Feldman puts it, become "an omnipresent white noise we've learned to tune out." And Feldman also argues that cheating is more common today than ever. The Josephson Institute, a nonprofit focused on youth ethics, concluded in a 2008 survey of nearly 30,000 high school students that "cheating in school continues to be rampant, and it's getting worse." In that survey, 64 percent of students said they'd cheated on a test during the past year, up from 60 percent in 2006. Another recent survey, by Junior Achievement, revealed that more than a third of teens believe lying, cheating, or plagiarizing can be necessary to succeed, while a brand-new study, commissioned by the publishers of Feldman's book, shows that 18- to 34-year-olds—those of us fully reared in this lying culture—deceive more frequently than the general population.
Teaching us to lie is not the purpose of Feldman's book. His subtitle, in fact, is "the way to truthful relationships." But if his book teaches us anything, it's that we should sharpen our skills—and use them with abandon.
Liars get what they want. They avoid punishment, and they win others' affection. Liars make themselves sound smart and savvy, they attain power over those of us who believe them, and they often use their lies to rise up in the professional world. Many liars have fun doing it. And many more take pride in getting away with it.
As Feldman notes, there is an evolutionary basis for deception: in the wild, animals use deception to "play dead" when threatened. But in the modern world, the motives of our lying are more selfish. Research has linked socially successful people to those who are good liars. Students who succeed academically get picked for the best colleges, despite the fact that, as one recent Duke University study found, as many as 90 percent of high-schoolers admit to cheating. Even lying adolescents are more popular among their peers.
And all it takes is a quick flip of the remote to see how our public figures fare when they get caught in a lie: Clinton keeps his wife and goes on to become a national hero. Fabricating author James Frey gets a million-dollar book deal. Eliot Spitzer's wife stands by his side, while "Appalachian hiker" Mark Sanford still gets to keep his post. If everyone else is being rewarded for lying, don't we need to lie, too, just to keep up?
But what's funny is that even as we admit to being liars, study after study shows that most of believe we can tell when others are lying to us. And while lying may be easy, spotting a liar is far from it. A nervous sweat or shifty eyes can certainly mean a person's uncomfortable, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're lying. Gaze aversion, meanwhile, has more to do with shyness than actual deception. Even polygraph machines are unreliable. And according to one study, by researcher Bella DePaulo, we're only able to differentiate a lie from truth only 47 percent of the time, less than if we guessed randomly. "Basically everything we've heard about catching a liar is wrong," says Feldman, who heads the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Ekman, meanwhile, has spent decades studying micro-facial expressions of liars: the split-second eyebrow arch that shows surprise when a spouse asks who was on the phone; the furrowed nose that gives away a hint of disgust when a person says "I love you." He's trained everyone from the Secret Service to the TSA, and believes that with close study, it's possible to identify those tiny emoticons. The hard part, of course, is proving them. "A lot of times, it's easier to believe," says Feldman. "It takes a lot of cognitive effort to think about whether someone is lying to us."
Which means that more often than not, we're like the poor dumb souls of The Invention of Lying, hanging on a liar's every word, no matter how untruthful they may be.