Original excerpt from “Telling Lies” (pp. 329-330)
October 31, 2018
What makes a lie a lie and what distinguishes a lie from another form of untruth? Dr. Ekman takes a look at the role of memory, interpretation, intention and belief in understanding deception.
Failure to Remember
The failure to remember is not a lie, although liars will often try to excuse their lies, once discovered, by claiming a memory failure. It is not uncommon to forget actions that one regrets, but if the forgetting truly has occurred, we should not consider that a lie, for there was no choice involved. Often it will not be possible to determine whether a memory failure has occurred or whether its invocation is itself a lie.
If someone provides a false account of what truly occurred, that does not necessarily mean the person intended to mislead, and, if there is not a deliberate intent to mislead, a false statement should not be considered a lie. Why should it matter what we call a false statement? It is not simply a matter of semantics or definition. If the person is not lying or, rather, if the person does not believe he is engaged in deception at the moment he is doing it, then I expect his demeanor will be that of a truthful person, and there should be no behavioral clues that the account is untrue… There are a number of ways in which people may provide false information that they believe to be true.
People do misinterpret events, especially the meaning of other people’s actions and the motives that lead people to act one way or another. The fact that someone interprets matters in a way that reflects well upon them, a way that allows them to engage in actions they finds desirable, does not mean that they are necessarily lying rather than misinterpreting. I would not consider such an occurrence necessarily an instance of self-deception. Not every misunderstanding or misinterpretation is self-deception.
Believing the Lie
Misinterpreting is not the only route by which someone may believe his or her false account is true. A person initially may know he is lying, but over time he may come to believe in his lie. Once he has come to believe his lie is a faithful account of what transpired, he may appear truthful. Overtime one may come to believe their false story is true. It is conceivable they could maintain in consciousness both the memory of the true event, and the constructed belief. Or the true memory might overtime become much less accessible than the constructed belief, or perhaps not accessible at all.