GRAND FORKS, N.D. — When University of North Dakota student Kelsey Askegaard, of St. Paul, Minn., doesn’t want to go out with her friends, she gives them a false excuse. Jenni Miska, of Maple Grove, Minn., exaggerates her stories to emphasize a point. And, Halae Anderson, of Twin Valley, Minn., deceives her friends to prevent them from taking advantage of her belongings.
With little white lies, stretching the truth has become a part of these students’ daily lives. And, they aren’t alone.
Research shows that people lie in about 20 percent of their social conversations that last 10 minutes or more, said Douglas Peters, psychology professor at the university.
“It’s a weird thing to think about,” Ms. Miska said. “Because I don’t feel like I ever [lie], but if I really had to think about it … probably a couple times a day.”
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Continuous lying might seem wrong, but Mr. Peters suggests that intentionally deceiving one another and misrepresenting oneself is just a part of life. Quoting the famous French philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Mr. Peters said, “Lying is really a condition of life.”
“Many writers and investigators say we’ve been encouraged [to lie] since childhood,” he said. But, this frequent lying over an extended period of time might have some negative health effects.
Mr. Peters said we learn to lie through observation as a child. Children see their parents lie and often their lies go unpunished, so the act of lying becomes an acceptable way to interact with people.
Mr. Peters, who teaches forensic psychology at the University of North Dakota, has done some research into child eye witnesses. He conducted a study in which an adult would steal something in front of a child and tell the child “Don’t tell anyone,” “This will be our secret,” or “I don’t want anybody to be in trouble.” Then, another adult would come into the room and ask what had happened.
“Depending on what that person said to the child, the children may or may not inform on the [thief],” Mr. Peters said.
Afterwards, the children were interviewed and the findings suggested that children lied to protect someone, to keep a promise, or because they were afraid.
Adults might lie for those same reasons. Psychologist and author Bella DePaulo’s research has found that one in four lies is told for the benefit of the other person.
Ms. Anderson said she mostly lies to make people feel better.
And Mr. Peters said that’s the case with most women. They are more likely to stretch the truth to protect someone’s feelings, while men are more likely to lie to make themselves appear better.
People also lie to simply avoid conflict and confrontation. Ms. Askegaard said she often does so with her friends. “They could get offended [by the truth], so you just make an excuse instead of getting them mad or starting a little fight,” she said.
Whether it’s lying about liking a present, one’s tardiness to a meeting, or a significant other’s outfit, Mr. Peters said lying acts as a social lubricant.
“It makes it easier for us to simply get along,” he said. “It’s so much easier for us to just say ‘The traffic was terrible’ or ‘I had car troubles’ rather than ‘I overslept.’”
He said the majority of lies are about fairly trivial things, and they can sometimes help us avoid future holdups.
Despite the significance of a lie, Mr. Peters said continuous lying might contribute to future health problems.
In one study, he said, a professor studied two groups of adults for 10 weeks. One group was told to be mindful and try not to lie, while the other was not. Both groups kept diaries of their lies and deceit. They also took polygraph tests and rated themselves on emotional and physical health.
“The more lies that they told, the more emotional and physical problems they reported,” Mr. Peters said. “Lying can be distressful particularly if it’s done frequently and over long periods of time.”
Ms. Miska said she can’t tell big lies because it torments her. When her parents were out of town one weekend, she tried to throw a party and instantly starting worrying about getting caught. “I came clean, but the guilt eats you,” she said.
Ms. Askegaard has experienced the same guilt.
“It kind of sticks with you for a while, especially if it’s something you get caught or called out for,” she said. “It takes a long time for it to get out of your mind.”
Mr. Peters said that prolonged stress can cause lower back pain, tension headaches, menstrual problems, and even infertility.
Along with affecting one’s health in the long run, lying can also have some immediate effects on one’s body movements, tone of voice, and choice of words. These immediate effects have acting as indicators allowing professionals to better determine when someone is lying.
Mr. Peters said psychologist Paul Ekman used high-speed photography to record very brief muscular movements in the face, such as a slight raise of an eye brow or wrinkles across one’s forehead, which he termed emotional leakage.
“It’s involuntary,” Mr. Peters said. “We don’t know we’re doing it.”
He added that people can be trained to look for these micro expressions, but without adequate training they are extremely difficult to detect.
Oral signs might be more easily detected. Mr. Peters said the tone or pitch of someone’s voice might change if they are lying. Or, they might avoid certain language such as first person words, which would allow them to distance themselves from the conversation.
Peters said President Bill Clinton was caught doing this during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He repeatedly said, “There was no sex with that woman,” rather than “I did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky.”
Liars also typically have short, undetailed answers, Mr. Peters said, which aligns with Ms. Askegaard’s experience.
She said when people are lying to her, they will give her really short, delayed responses via text message. When someone is lying to her face-to-face, she said she notices a change in their glance.
“They won’t look at you, or they look around a lot,” she said.
Psychologists have studied eye movement in relation to lying, and Mr. Peters said some believe that when right-handed people are lying they look up and left. When they are telling the truth, they look up and to the right. The difference comes from whether a person is remembering or constructing.
But, Mr. Peters said, none of these methods for detecting lies is foolproof.
According to Ms. DePaulo’s research on the topic, lies are very difficult for people to detect. Her research showed that generally people can detect lying 50 to 54 percent of the time.
“It’s basically guessing, so the interpretation is that most people don’t have the ability to detect lies,” he said.