Deception as Human Nature Blog, Part II

By Humintell Director Dr. David Matsumoto

In this week’s blog, we continue last week’s discussion about deception as being a part of human nature.

The words “deception” and “lying” most often conjure up negative, and sometimes pretty dark images. This is reflected in not only much academic and lay writing on the topic, but also in everyday discourse. We teach our children not to lie, and in general the public believes that “lying is bad.” These negative connotations occur in research as well; with few exceptions, academics studying deception and lying have often associated them with malice, self-interest, criminal behavior, and sometimes even psychopathy and psychopathology.

But let me give a different spin on the topic. In fact, deception and lying are indeed part of human nature (as the title of this blog suggests), and not just the dark side of the mind. I believe that deception and lying are fundamental aspects of human (and animal) social life. Moreover, social life as it exists today would not exist without deception and lying. That is, social life as we know it requires a good degree of deception and lying.

From the time we are infants and children, we learn to hide our thoughts and feelings. Children are often instructed to tell Aunt Mary that they liked her gift when in fact they didn’t. Human brain maturation and development facilitates this cognitive and emotional control. One of the reasons why is because deception and lying, to some degree, grease the wheels of society and culture, allowing for interactions to occur smoothly, so that humans can be coordinated and cooperate on tasks to get things done.

One of the ways in which this occurs can be seen in the development of emotional regulation skills across the lifespan. From the time we are infants and children, we learn to regulate our emotions in order to get along with others better. As adults we don’t take swings at others whenever we’re angry, or just begin stripping our clothes off in extremely hot weather, even though we may have those impulses. We typically think of this kind of change as “development,” because people are increasingly able to hide their emotions in order to be socially appropriate. But in reality, this is a type of deception.

In fact, think about what would happen is we knew what everyone else was really thinking and feeling all the time. If this were the case, nothing in human societies and cultures as we know it would exist. Relationships among family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and even strangers require some degree of blindness to what we are all thinking and feeling. Family relationships would break down, and marriage would be difficult if not non-existent. Human social life is in fact built to some degree on a foundation of deception and lies. Human brains, cognitions, and cultures have all evolved to allow this to occur (along with many other capabilities).

Even our relatives in the animal kingdom rely on a great deal of deception for survival. Think about how chameleons change colors in their environment, or how difficult it is to see fish in water against their background. Have you ever seen a praying mantis out in the wild? These animals are very difficult to spot because they employ or have a natural deceptive ability. This ability helps them to survive (that is, not get eaten!).

Thus when we think about deception and lying, let’s not forget it’s truly a part of our human (and animal) nature, and for good reason. That’s why it’s tough to detect deception, and is one of the reasons why study after study has continually shown that human observers are usually no better than chance at judging whether a person is lying to them or not. If anyone says it’s easy, they may not have a good idea of the complexity of the issue, or how in-grained deception and lying are in our human nature.

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