Lying and self-deception in health and disease


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Deceit and the need to detect deception are prevalent in the animal kingdom, and reaches their highest evolutionary development in Homo sapiens.

Deceit is an intricate part of human communication involving, via a dynamic process, selfdeception and the deception of others. When used in “normal” ways, we are often unaware of our deceptive communications to others.

Deceit serves to promote social support and helps to sustain mental and physical health. However, blatant (pathological) forms of deceit may, to the contrary, be destructive to the self and others. The sophisticated person uses deceit in a subtle manner while, in contrast, crude and pathologic deceit is frequently associated with neurocognitive dysfunction or distorted developmental processes.

The language of lying
“Man was given a tongue with which to speak and words to hide his thoughts.”

This Hungarian proverb indicates the ubiquity of deceptive communications. In fact, the development of different languages and symbolic communication has been hypothesized as being the result of the need for social groups to maintain cohesion and secrecy (Steiner, 1975). The ways in which man can deceive are almost endless. Included are the words we speak, or don’t speak, as well as our non-verbal channels of communication. Further, colloquialisms, words, and nonverbal communication are often culture specific.

That which may be considered a polite communication in one culture may be considered a lie in another. Saying “No” in some cultures is considered unacceptably rude and therefore “Yes” does not always necessarily mean yes.

The following brief descriptions of various forms of deceit will serve to lay a foundation for topics considered in this communication.

Definition

Lying, by definition (in American dictionaries), involves the deliberate misstatement of information believed by the protagonist to be false and with the intent to deceive. This definition involves not only the content of a communication but also its intent. It is interesting and important to note that one can speak “the truth” with the intent to deceive, thereby leading the “target” to a false belief.

This is commonly done by providing only half the truth, leading the intended target of the communication to a false assumption. For example, a person late to an appointment may say that there was an automobile accident that had tied up traffic.

The statement itself may be factually true but “in truth” the automobile accident had nothing to do with the person’s tardiness. The person who hears the proffered excuse may assume, however, that the tardiness was due to the accident and not the fault of the late person.