What is a lie?
Per my definition, a lie or deceit occurs when one person intends to mislead another or others, doing so deliberately without giving prior notification of said intention, and without having been explicitly asked to do so by the target. This definition may sound obvious, boring even, and yet the public’s fascination with lies and the people who tell them remains stronger than ever! But why? One possible explanation behind our investment in stories of deceit is simply because every time a liar is discovered, we are forced to face the fact that we’re all vulnerable. This can be a difficult pill to swallow but the best way to begin protecting yourself from liars and con artists is learning the primary ways to lie.
How we lie
There are two primary ways to lie: to conceal and to falsify. In concealing, the liar withholds some information without actually saying anything untrue. In falsifying, an additional step is taken. Not only does the liar withhold true information, but one presents false information as if it were true. Often it is necessary to combine concealing and falsifying to pull off the deceit, but sometimes a liar can get away just with concealment.
Is concealment a lie?
Not everyone considers concealment to be lying; some people reserve that word only for the bolder act of falsification. If the doctor does not tell the patient that the illness is terminal, if the husband does not mention that he spent his lunch hour at a motel with his wife’s best friend, if the policeman doesn’t tell the suspect that a “bug” is recording the conversation with his lawyer, no false information has been transmitted, yet each of these examples meets my definition of lying. The targets did not ask to be misled, and the concealers acted deliberately without giving prior notification of their intent to mislead. Information was withheld wittingly, with intent, not by accident.
Exceptions for when concealment is not a lie
There are exceptions, times when concealment is not lying because prior notification was given or consent to be misled was obtained. If the husband and wife agreed to have an open marriage in which each will conceal affairs unless directly asked, concealing the assignation at the motel will not be a lie. If the patient asked the doctor not to be told if the news is bad, concealing that information is not a lie. By legal definition, however, a suspect and attorney have the right to private conversation; concealing the violation of that right will always be a lie.
Liars often prefer concealment
When there is a choice about how to lie, liars usually prefer concealing to falsifying. There are many advantages. For one thing, concealing usually is easier than falsifying. Nothing has to be made up. There is no chance of getting caught without having the whole story worked out in advance. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said that he didn’t have a good enough memory to be a liar. If a doctor gives a false explanation of a patient’s symptoms in order to conceal that the illness is terminal, the doctor will have to remember his false account in order not to be inconsistent when asked again a few days later.
Concealment may also be preferred because it seems less reprehensible than falsifying. It is passive, not active. Even though the target may be equally harmed, liars may feel less guilt about concealing than falsifying. The liar can maintain the reassuring thought that the target really knows the truth but does not want to confront it. Such a liar could think, “my husband must know I am playing around, because he never asked me where I spend my afternoons. My discretion is a kindness; I certainly am not lying to him about what I am doing. I am choosing not to humiliate him, not forcing him to acknowledge my affairs.”
It is easier to cover a concealment lie
Concealment lies are also much easier to cover afterward if discovered. The liar does not go as far out on a limb. There are many available excuses: ignorance, the intent to reveal it later, memory failure, and so on. The person testifying under oath who says “to the best of my recollection” provides an out if later faced with something he has concealed.
The claim not to remember what the liar does remember and is deliberately withholding is intermediate between concealment and falsification. It happens when the liar can no longer simply not say anything; a question has been raised, a challenge made. By falsifying only a failure to remember, the liar avoids having to remember a false story; all that needs to be remembered is the untrue claim to a poor memory. And, if the truth later comes out, the liar can always claim not to have lied about it, that it was just a memory problem.
A memory failure is credible only in limited circumstances. The doctor who asked if the tests were negative can’t claim not to remember, nor can the policeman if asked by the suspect whether the room is bugged. A memory loss can be claimed only for insignificant matters, or something that happened some time ago. Even the passage of time may not justify a failure to remember extraordinary events, which anyone would be expected to recall no matter when they happened.
The interplay of concealment and falsification
A liar loses the choice whether to conceal or falsify once challenged by the victim. If the wife asks her husband why she couldn’t reach him at lunch, the husband has to falsify to maintain his secret affair. One could argue that even the usual dinner table question (“how was your day?”) is the request for information, but it can be dodged. The husband can mention other matters, concealing the assignation unless a directed inquiry forces him to choose between falsifying or telling the truth.
Some lies from the outset require falsification; concealment alone will not do. Lying about previous experience to obtain a job can’t be done by concealment alone. Not only must inexperience be concealed, but the relevant job history must be fabricated. Escaping a boring party without offending the host requires not only concealing the preference to watch TV at home but the falsification of an acceptable excuse- an early morning appointment, babysitter problems, or the like.
Falsification also occurs, even though the lie does not directly require it, to help the liar cover evidence of what is being concealed. This use of falsification to mask what is being concealed is especially necessary when emotions must be concealed. It is easy to conceal an emotion no longer felt, much harder to conceal an emotion felt at the moment, especially if the feeling is strong. Terror is harder to conceal than worry, just as rage is harder to conceal than annoyance. The stronger the emotion, the more likely it is that some sign of it will leak despite the liar’s best attempt to conceal it. Often, this leaked emotion shows up in the form of a micro expression. You can learn how to spot these signs of deception with our online training tools.