Why Lies Fail – Part 2

Written October, 2009

I asked people “If you could be absolutely certain that your lover would never find out, would you have a one-night stand with a very attractive person?” About half said “no”. They didn’t differ from those who said “yes” (that they would cheat) in whether they were married or single, if married, how long they had been married, and if in a committed relationship, how long they had known their lover. Men as often as women said they wouldn’t cheat. When I asked these non-cheaters “why not”, they said they would feel too guilty.

Not every cheater realizes ahead of time how guilty he or she might feel afterwards. Guilt about breaking the other person’s trust, compounded by lying about it, is the second emotion that can betray a lie. (Fear about being caught was discussed in Newsletter 3.) Guilt changes the sound of the voice. The facial expression of guilt is not different from sadness, but eye contact is avoided and the head may be angled down or turned away.

The changes in behavior are involuntary, hard to suppress, just as they are in fear; but guilt and fear don’t look or sound alike. Strong feelings of either emotion may also interfere with the ability to speak smoothly or coherently, which can betray a liar.

Some people readily feel guilt, as if they are looking for an opportunity to take responsibility for a misdeed. Police need to be cautious about such people who may confess to crimes they didn’t commit with little prodding to do so. And some people are quite resistant to feeling this emotion, rarely taking responsibility for causing harm to others – ‘it was his fault’, or ‘she wouldn’t have gotten hurt if she hadn’t wanted to take the risk’. The most extreme case is the psychopath who feels no guilt about harming others.

Guilt may become so unbearable that it motivates a confession. Guilty people often feel relieved at having gotten their offense off their chest, hoping for forgiveness. They may not anticipate that sometimes a betrayed person may have a very hard time trusting them again.

People who feel ashamed don’t want to confess, certain that if their shameful act was discovered the person who found out would be repulsed. It is not just a misdeed; people feel ashamed about who and what they are. They are often the targets of their own loathing. They do not believe they can ever be forgiven for what they have done, or accepted for whom they are if their true nature was ever to be discovered.

I believe that most people fail to consider how difficult it is to maintain the lies that become necessary to conceal some misdeed. They don’t:

  • Anticipate exactly when, nor how often they might come under suspicion;
  • What they will need to say as a cover;
  • The problem of remembering what they said, in order to keep their story straight the next time they are queried;
  • The guilt they may feel;
  • The disruptive impact of the fear of being caught;
  • And, the severe penalty a loss of trust imposes.

Guilt is most likely when the liar shares values and respects the target of the lie. It is much harder to lie or cheat someone who has acted fairly. But if the wages are too low, the spouse cold and inconsiderate, the parent too strict – the liar may feel entitled to cheat, and feel no guilt about doing so. No guilt is felt when lying is authorized by a higher authority as it is for the spy, the undercover vice police officer, or the terrorist.

The lie catcher must be cautious not to interpret signs of guilt as proof of a misdeed. Even when people try to conceal guilt feelings that does not mean the person is guilty of the misdeed under investigation. They could be feeling guilty about something else. Always remember emotions don’t tell us what triggered them.

Sometimes there is no consensus about whether the truth must be told: A woman about her age? A man or woman about how many sexual partners they have had in the last year? Is all fair in love and war? The seducer who falsely proclaims undying love may believe the target must know that it is a ‘line’. If there is no widely accepted consensus about whether truthfulness is required, or if the liar is convinced the target really doesn’t want to know, or knows but doesn’t object, guilt wont be felt.

In the next Newsletter learn about the third emotion that most often betrays the criminal, spy, terrorist or rebellious adolescent.