Robert Feldman, Finding The 'Liar' In All Of Us
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Sometime earlier today, somebody almost certainly told you a lie. If you chatted with a stranger on the bus for 10 minutes, research suggests you probably heard three. And the odds are not better if you were talking with a co-worker or with your spouse. And again, according to research, you almost certainly believed everyone. Psychologist Robert Feldman concludes that we live among a web of liars - yes, a few greedy businessmen and con artists, but much more often our friends, family colleagues and yes, ourselves. He believes that humans are programmed to lie and programmed to believe them. Today: our duplicitous nature and the liars in our lives.
Later in the hour, Dawn Turner Trice questions honesty and interracial relationships. But first, when was the last time somebody lied to you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Robert Feldman's new book is the "The Liar in Your Life." He's associate dean at the College Of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and joins us from our member station there, WFCR. Nice to have you on the program today.
Professor ROBERT FELDMAN (Associate Dean, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences): Glad to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And when was the last time somebody told you a lie?
Prof. FELDMAN: Oh, probably about five minutes ago…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. FELDMAN: …when they - I think I was told I was looking good and ready to go.
CONAN: And quite possibly, you were. But nevertheless, these are sort of the lies that we use as social lubricant, if you will.
Prof. FELDMAN: Exactly, exactly. These are part and parcel of everyday social interaction. When we're with our friends, when we're with people we're just meeting for the first time, even when we're with our spouses and loved ones, the lies are thick and furious.
CONAN: And you say a lot of people - these are little white lies. Nevertheless, you say, they come with a price attached.
Prof. FELDMAN: The little white lies do matter. In part, it's because these lies can very easily lead to other lies and bigger lies. And the other thing is it leads to a kind of lack of authenticity in our everyday life. We don't really know where we stand. We don't really ever get a good sense of who we are and what our strengths and weaknesses are as people if people are constantly not telling us the truth.
CONAN: Even in those little daily interactions - I must say I grew up in New York and was quite accustomed to surly people on the streets who made no bones about telling me their opinion about anything, and then moving to Washington, D.C., where the normal reaction was have a nice day and what a pleasure. And I found that, well, disingenuous.
Prof. FELDMAN: And also kind of refreshing, because it is more pleasant to be in a world in which people are nice and telling us the kinds of things that we would like to hear. But the reality is that ultimately, these lies have a price, and there's something to be said for the New York style of truth.
CONAN: Nevertheless, it does make a - put a little more friction in your life…
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: …as it were. And as we go through, though, it's interesting, you say, we are primed to - liars have an advantage over us.
Prof. FELDMAN: Yes. As I talk about in my book, there is a definite liar's advantage. First of all, we're very bad at telling when someone else is lying to us. The nonverbal cues that we often think give away people, in fact, do not give them away. There's no single or even set of nonverbal behaviors that tell us when someone is being deceptive. So most of the time, we have about a 50-50 chance of determining if somebody's telling us the truth. So the liars do have an advantage in that way.
CONAN: And I want to stop you there. Poker players famously can read other people at the table, and they have what are known as tells. The guy is bluffing every time he scratches his nose or something like that.
Prof. FELDMAN: Well, yeah. And some of us are really good at learning those kinds of tells. But one of the things that happens at a poker table is that you eventually learn whether the person is bluffing or not. In everyday life, we don't get that advantage. We don't - we're not able to tell if someone has been lying to us or not most of the time. So we don't have much feedback in terms of whether we are correct in our assumptions about when someone is lying or not to us. There's also a truth bias that we carry around with us that most of us just generally believe that others are telling us the truth. So we're not very good in that sense in determining whether somebody is lying to us.
CONAN: And you suggest…
Prof. FELDMAN: And finally, it takes a lot of work to tell - to spend effort, to think about all the time whether someone's being truthful or not truthful. So most of the time, we are more than willing to let the lie slip by us.
CONAN: Now, let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're asking people: When was the last time somebody lied to you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. We're talking with Robert Feldman about his book "The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships." And Christina is on the line, calling from San Antonio.
CHRISTINA (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Christina.
CHRISTINA: I'm pregnant, and I think just about every day someone tells me that I look great, which I like. It's very flattering. But don't think it's necessarily true because not only have I gained my weight, which is fine, but I don't sleep very well. So my eyes are puffy. I haven't been able to do my hair colored, so my grays are coming out. And my daughter is four. She looks at me sometimes. I can tell when she thinks, wow, mommy looks really different.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I'm sure you've heard that you're glowing.
CHRISTINA: Yeah, you get that. You're glowing. You're beautiful. You look gorgeous, all that stuff. But I tell you what, even though I know it's not entirely true, it does make me feel good. And tell my girlfriends, keep it coming. Keep on talking. I look great.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And Robert Feldman, that's part of the reinforcement process.
Prof. FELDMAN: That is part of the reinforcement process where we want those lies to come to us. We want to be told that we do look good. And - I mean, first of all, there may be some people who believe that a pregnant woman does look beautiful, no matter what. And there are other people who are just saying that. But as you say, you enjoy hearing that you look good, even if you don't truly 100 percent believe that you're looking your very best.
Prof. FELDMAN: And I think this just illustrates one of the facts about lying in everyday life, that very often, we are not only accepting of other people's lies, we embrace them. We want to believe them because they make us feel better about ourselves. They make us think that we look better, that we're smarter, that we're better people. So it makes it very hard to switch back and forth from saying, oh, I want to accept those lies to being in a mode where you actually want to identity the lies that others tell you.
CONAN: Christina, I think you look beautiful.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHRISTINA: Oh, thank you.
Prof. FELDMAN: Me, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Thanks very much.
CHRISTINA: Have a good day.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Michael, Michael with us from Duluth.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Michael.
MICHAEL: Hi. I do want to say that I love pregnant women. I think they do look great.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MICHAEL: I don't know, something about them just makes me - I love pregnant women. But my lie is - my favorite lie is when I was in getting knee surgery, and the anesthetist comes in. He gives me a shot, what he said would soften me up. And he tells me that my doctor is the best. He said, this guy is the greatest. And I was just loosened up. I just went, you're lying. I said - and I called him on it, and I could see by the look in his face that he was lying. But the doctor was fine. I mean there was no question about that.
But they want you to go into the surgery and feel like, you know, everything's okay. They don't want to you going into there going, oh, my God. What's going to happen here? They just tell you, this guy is the greatest and it's wonderful and everything's going to be fine. But anyway, it made me laugh. That was my funnest - the greatest lie, I think.
CONAN: Interesting. And I'm sure he remembered it was the right knee and not the left.
MICHAEL: He remembers that it was the right knee and not the left, yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Okay. Michael, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
MICHAEL: You're welcome.
CONAN: And this goes on to the question of why - well, you've explained to us, Robert Feldman, why we're tending to believe the lies. Why do we go on and tell them? Because there are a number of interesting motives going on here.
Mr. FELDMAN: Oh, we tell lies because they work, that we - first of all, people like others who tell them the things that they want to hear. So there's a social advantage in that way. The other thing that lies can do is give you an advantage over someone else in a business negotiation. It can keep the social situation moving a lot more smoothly.
So there are many different kinds of motivations for the lies, and sometimes people want to make a distinction between white lies and other kinds of lies but it's my feeling, and as I talk about it in the book, that all these lies actually do take a toll in social relationships. That in fact these white lies do add up and there can be a kind of snowball effect where the white lies, if you're very good at it, and they - work very well in social settings for you, the white lies can lead to bigger and bigger kinds of lies. So it really is a kind of slippery slope and very dangerous.
CONAN: You tell the story, in fact, of a - I guess it's now a famous story of a 31-year-old man who lied his way into Princeton, made up a name, a whole back-story. And you read this and it just seems ridiculous. This was clearly something that was devised to, well, make him look the best possible - like the best possible candidate Princeton had ever seen.
Mr. FELDMAN: And not only did he lie his way into Princeton, but he was there for years and no one caught on. And obviously, they have pretty smart people at Princeton but I think this illustrates part of the liar's advantage. Most of the time, we don't delve into people's backgrounds. We do accept that they are the people that they say they are. And so it makes it surprisingly easy for people to get away with their lies.
CONAN: And you don't have to be the golden-tongued con man to get away with this.
Mr. FELDMAN: No, no, not at all. I mean, you just need to be consistent and tell the lie over and over again, and people will tend to believe the lie.
CONAN: And what about those television shows where looking up and to your left absolutely guaranteed you're telling a lie?
Mr. FELDMAN: Doesn't work. The non-verbal behaviors, all the behaviors that people say are related to lies, may be related to lies on one level, but those same non-verbal behaviors may mean something totally different. They may mean you're anxious. They may mean you're unhappy. They may mean something very, very different. So the problem is that when you see these non-verbal behaviors, yes, in fact, it may be related to lying, but it also may be related to all sorts of other emotional states and we're not very good at sorting those out.
CONAN: Robert Feldman is with us. We're talking about his book, "The Liar In Your Life: The Way To Truthful Relationships." We'll have more of your calls in just a moment, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you've been following the news today, you know that former President Clinton went to North Korea to try to arrange the release of two American journalists who'd been sentenced to, I think, 12 years at hard labor. The Associated Press is reporting that North Korea says those two journalists have been pardoned. Stay tuned to NPR News for the latest on that as it develops.
I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. You're a liar, and yes, so am I. Robert Feldman says we all lie all the time, even to ourselves, when we say I feel fine, or I like your dress, the little white lies might help us avoid awkward social moments. Imagine telling a coworker, your hair looks terrible. But all those fibs make us more and more tolerant of deception. That's among the arguments in Robert Feldman's new book. It's titled "The Liar In Your Life."
He studied the hows and whys of lying for more than 20 years. So when was the last time someone lied to you? 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's go next to Gigi(ph), Gigi with us from Boston. Gigi?
BRANDON (Caller): This is Brandon(ph). I just called in.
CONAN: Oh, all right. I'm sorry, Brandon, go ahead.
BRANDON: Oh, that's great, didn't even get a chance to screen me, but my question is more - where is the line between accentuating the positive and actually telling a lie? And you know, for example, I tell my wife every day that she's beautiful, which is absolutely true, but some days, she's more beautiful than others and she has more time to do the things that women do to do those things. So I'm just kind of curious about that.
CONAN: When is it a lie and when is it an exaggeration, Robert Feldman?
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, there is no fine line here. It's really a matter of gradations. If, in your heart you believe she's beautiful every day, then you're certainly not lying to her. But it does raise the issue of how we distinguish between different kinds of lies. And ultimately, my position is that a lie is a lie is a lie, that these lies add up, these lies exact a social toll from us and that when you are being deceptive, there is a price to be paid. But in your case, you're talking about something that you believe is true. So it wouldn't fit my definition of a lie.
CONAN: All right, thanks, Brandon.
BRANDON: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye, and I was pushing the wrong button. This, I think, is Gigi.
GIGI (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Gigi. Go ahead, please.
GIGI: So this is very interesting. Just a couple of days ago, I met someone, and we went and had this great date, and he was telling me all these things about himself, and I didn't really think one thing or the other. And then we went to dinner, and I was extremely tired, and so we got the bill, he took it in his hand. I went to the bathroom. I came out. He went to the bathroom, and then we walked out.
And something inside said something is weird, and I said I was really tired, and I needed to go home, and he kept saying, you know, let's go get ice cream and trying to duck me in the stores just past the restaurant, and then we got up a couple blocks later, and there was a bench around the corner. So we sat down, and then he wanted to walk me back to my car but across the street. And something inside said it was wrong, and as we're walking across the street in front of the restaurant, someone comes running out saying, you didn't pay your bill.
And then it turns out he didn't go to law school. He never went to the undergrad he went to. Everything he told me had been a lie.
GIGI: It was very interesting, and it was originally gut instinct, but it was him trying to, like, walk me across the street instead of the side of the street my car was on, trying to duck in and, like, maybe grab a cup of coffee afterwards, when I had said I was really tired. I mean, all these things together, it was very interesting. So I called him on it. I mean, I called him right out on it.
Mr. FELDMAN: I suspect this will be your last date with this guy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FELDMAN: I think you make a very good point, and that is that we do have to listen to our gut, although you may not be 100 percent accurate when you get these feelings, these intuitions. In fact, they can be quite right. And here you have, it sounds like, a fair amount of evidence. It wasn't just one thing or another but several different things that just didn't…
GIGI: I called NYU. I called Duke. Nobody could verify him, yeah.
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, I think it's very good in this kind of situation to look at the evidence. First of all, look at the evidence rationally but also follow those gut feelings.
CONAN: And one of the ways - and thanks, Gigi, for the call, and good luck - better luck with your next date. Oh, I'm sorry, Gigi.
GIGI: …to trust their gut because I could have been in a really dangerous situation.
CONAN: Oh, well that's exactly what I was going to ask, follow up with Robert Feldman, and that is one of the ways you say is the way toward a more truthful relationship is, in fact, to, well, when in doubt, verify.
Mr. FELDMAN: Exactly, exactly. I talk about something called active honesty assessment, and what it means is you really have to put in the effort, the thought, into thinking about the people that you're dealing with, particularly those you don't know very well. And think about whether they are telling you what appears to be the truth and whether there's any way to verify it.
I mean, it's hardly very romantic. I'm the first to admit that, but I think in all sorts of situations where you are unsure of somebody else, I think it does make some sense, as you did, to make some calls and find out what, you know, what the truth is.
CONAN: Let's go next to Kelly(ph), Kelly in Denver.
KELLY (Caller): Yes. I had a question about the Internet and…
CONAN: Everybody tells the truth on the Internet.
KELLY: Yes, and lying over the Internet. I frequent a parenting message board and I'm thinking of one particular instance where a woman was posting and claimed to have a child who was dying and then died of cancer. And she had gone to the extent of setting up a blog, using pictures and actually ended up being - had posted the story on multiple parenting messaging boards, and eventually just kind of started to ring false to some people who started doing some Googling and found out that she had swiped the pictures from various online accounts and just basically went through and looked through the details and then, you know, tried to confront this woman, you know, made public all these details that didn't add up.
And then, of course, we never hear from that person again. They don't necessarily admit that they lie. They just - suddenly you never hear from them again.
CONAN: It's interesting. There are cases like that, Robert Feldman. The former mayor, I think, of Atlantic City, who made up a story of, well, military honors that he had not earned. He said he'd served in the Green Berets and had never done that. And these things can become quite elaborate.
Mr. FELDMAN: Oh, yeah, they are very elaborate, and it's really paradoxical about the Internet. What I found in my research, and what I talk about in the book, is that we lie more on the Internet than we do face to face. So it's easier for us to lie in email, and it's easier for us to lie in instant messaging than it is in face-to-face conversations, and as we know, it's pretty easy to lie in face-to-face conversations.
The paradox is that, in some ways, using the Internet allows you to identify when someone is lying. So it's both easier to lie on the Internet, and there are - the case that you talk about, I talk about in the book, it's both easier to lie, and people do it and develop false identities. And they're all - we use user names that are not true, but at the same time, the incredible strength of the internet is that you can use it to find out when some of these instances are not accurate. But it is way too easy for people to be dishonest in using the Web.
CONAN: Kelly, thanks very much.
KELLY: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Michelle(ph) in Chicago. I think one of my students - I'm a teacher - lied to me. He is seven years old. He has a good imagination, and he has ADHD. He said he caught a spider and gave it a ride in a motorboat. Kids make up a lot of stories, so I don't consider it a true lie, just a flight of fancy. Is this considered a true lie? His only motive seems to have been to get attention.
Mr. FELDMAN: Well, it is a lie if it's not true. And I mean, I think imagination is wonderful, but we also have to teach our kids the value of telling the truth. It's very hard to do that because as - I mean, kids start lying when they're, some as young as two years of age. By three, they begin to lie on a more regular basis. And for parents, it's very hard to teach their children to be honest.
We talk about - we, I think most of us would say that honesty is the best policy, and that's what we teach our children. And we talk about American icons like George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln never told a lie, that sort of thing, but at the same time, we actually teach them to lie. We tell them a friend is coming over and bringing a gift to you. Make sure you tell them that you like it, even if you don't. Please tell them that, that you wanted this gift, or…
CONAN: Well, we're teaching them those social rules that make this - make their existence going to be easier a little later on.
Mr. FELDMAN: It is going to be easier, but it's also a very mixed message. We're telling them that on the one hand, always tell the truth, and on the other hand, well not so much. It's okay to lie in some cases.
We tell them that the telephone rings, and you see it's the boss calling, your boss calling, you say to your kid, oh, tell him that I'm not here. And it's a very difficult message for kids to understand because on the one hand, it's always tell the truth, on the other, well, it's okay to lie in some cases.
CONAN: Let's go next to Dee(ph), Dee with us from Augusta, Georgia.
DEE (Caller): Hi. I have a friend with whom I wasn't able to make contact for several months, and finally when I called her, she told me that her husband had been very ill and was in rehabilitation out of state.
So I believed it. I continued to call and try to check on her, but she would never answer the phone. So I was concerned, but didn't stress over it. Well, the other night, she called me and said I have to come clean to you. He actually left me six months ago and…
DEE: …and I didn't want anyone to know. No one really knows. And I was, of course - I was horrified because she's such a good friend and I hurt for her because I could have provided comfort during her time of pain.
CONAN: And I - would that come into the category, Robert Feldman, of lies to make us look better?
Prof. FELDMAN: It's lies to make us look better. It's lies to - I mean, in some cases, lies are motivated by just sheer embarrassment. And I think this is one of those cases. But I think the long-term result is going to be that you may never trust this woman in the same way that you did before this incident. And that, of course, is one of the costs of lying.
CONAN: You write specifically - and Dee, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: You write specifically about couples who have been undone by infidelity, yet sometimes, you say those bonds can be reestablished and can be stronger than ever.
Prof. FELDMAN: Well, they can be reestablished, and the marriage ultimately can be strengthened. But it's a relationship that's on different terms, where you have to have real forgiveness on the part of the person who's been cheated on. And there is a realization, I think, that the relationship is not going to be the same as it was before this loss of trust occurred.
And I do write about the ways in which you can try and rebuild trust in a relationship, but it's certainly not easy and it doesn't always work. There are relationships that just cannot be repaired. But if both parties are willing to move on and to accept this - the new reality of the relationship, it is possible to move on.
CONAN: Robert Feldman, the author of "The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships." 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
An email from Jay: As an attorney, I am constantly amazed by the number of clients who lie to me. This occurs even after having a long and serious talk about the importance of giving me all of the facts as they are and not as the client wishes them to be.
Numerous attorneys are burned every day in depositions or at trial by the unraveling of their clients' lies. Nine times out of 10, the facts could have been successfully dealt with by the attorney if they had only known the truth ahead of time. Why the people engage in this type of self-destructive lying?
Prof. FELDMAN: Well, I think they don't, first of all, understand necessarily the consequences. And sometimes, people fool themselves. It may not be the case that these people are actively lying on any kind of conscious basis, but that they've somehow, in their own mind, created a situation which puts them in a somewhat - more favorable light. And so they really don't even understand what the objective truth of the situation is. It's very easy to convince ourselves of one thing or another and to believe it so much that it becomes our reality.
CONAN: Our subjective reality transformed into an objective reality - at least in our own brains.
Prof. FELDMAN: Exactly. Exactly.
CONAN: Yeah. Let's go to Laura. Laura's calling from Madison.
LAURA (Caller): Yeah. To be true to myself, I'm a transsexual. To be true to myself, it would seem that I'd lie to everyone else.
Prof. FELDMAN: Well, it depends, you know, where you are in the stage of telling other people about it. I think you - it's helpful to move in a direction of being honest with other people, even though there can be some very, very painful moments.
LAURA: So when - honesty to other people, is that to present myself as who I feel I am?
Prof. FELDMAN: If you're presenting yourself as the person that you believe you are, then you're presenting yourself in an honest way. And I think that is the goal that all of us should have, to present ourselves in as honest and open a way as we possibly can and to show that true person who we are.
CONAN: Laura, is that the case for some of the time?
LAURA: Well, let's say that I - I'm sorry. But for a lack of a better term, let's say that I hook up with a guy. He would feel abused. Do you get where I'm coming from?
CONAN: Yeah. I get your point. Is it a burden to lie?
LAURA: It's a - oh, it's a huge burden.
CONAN: And so even though this is making, in a way, your life possible, making those immediate situations survivable, it's - there's a penalty you pay for it for telling the lies.
Prof. FELDMAN: And there's also probably…
LAURA: I self-flagellate every day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. FELDMAN: And there's a penalty involved for being truthful, too, I think, in this…
Prof. FELDMAN: …kind of situation.
CONAN: I think…
Prof. FELDMAN: It's a very hard situation.
CONAN: I think of it's the no-win situation in that regard.
LAURA: And so, what is truth in this case? What is the…
CONAN: Well, I think you have to look inside yourself for that, Laura.
CONAN: I'm not sure if those of us who, on the other end of the phone line can help you there.
LAURA: Thank you.
CONAN: Good luck. And Robert Feldman, you end by pointing out in your book that, of course, we have to accept the lies that we tell every day and the ones that we get away with, and, well, the little pangs of conscience that we feel every time we do.
Prof. FELDMAN: We do. We have to look into ourselves, I think, and we have to try to lead as honest a life as we possibly can. I talk about how honesty is not the perfect policy, but it is the best policy. And the more we can strive to be honest - both with other people and to demand honesty from others towards us - the better off we're going to be.
By asking others to tell us the truth - and I think you do have to go out of your way to ask others to be truthful to you - you're going to have a better understanding of who you are and you're going to be - end up leading a more authentic life.
CONAN: And here's an email we got from James in South Bend. Here are a few that I just never believe: This won't hurt a bit. I'm from the government, and I'm here to help. And one that's not quite a lie but always puts me on guard: Trust me. And if James thinks those were original with him, he's lying.
Anyway, Robert Feldman, thank you very much.
Prof. FELDMAN: Thank you, Neal. It was good to be here.
CONAN: Robert Feldman is the author of "The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships."
When we come back after a short break, we'll be talking about honesty of a different sort. How open are we in interracial relationships? Dawn Turner Trice joins us.
It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.