Lying from fear

How one of our most primitive instincts perpetuates our fabrication of intentional untruths

“My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium. A master. But I chickened out. And I blurted out the first name that came to mind. Schwartz!” — Ralphie, A Christmas Story

A memorable scene from an iconic movie. The f-word is a pretty big deal, and so is having to tell your mom who you learned it from. Can we really blame Ralphie for lying here? His other option was to tell his mother the truth: that he had learned the word “fuck” from his own father. He knew the consequences of telling the truth would be unspeakably awful, so he lied.

Ralphie’s ability to quickly conjure up a lie isn’t a precocious one. No, this is a skill we all learn very young. Try and recall the first lie you ever told, and you’ll find yourself reaching further and further back into your memory until you reach a point beyond which nothing very coherent exists. Odds are that you can’t actually recall your first lie, but someone older in your life probably can. For your parents, it was likely a pivotal moment.

It was probably an average day, and they probably saw you do something like slide your green beans off your plate to the dog under the table, and then they asked you if you slid your green beans off your plate to the dog under the table, and you smiled and said “nope.” And thus, that average day went down in history as the day that little Johnny told his first lie.

Dr. Victoria Talwar, professor at McGill University and a leading expert on children’s lying behavior, tells us that lying is “a developmental milestone,” and that “lying is related to intelligence.” Childhood is filled with developmental milestones- talking, walking, learning numbers, learning the alphabet. And those are all things we’re taught to do. We observe and listen and then we imitate. But, lying? No one’s going out of their way to teach us how to do that.

We start to lie because we learn that society expects us to. Sometimes we lie to appease others. Like Po Bronson says, we instruct children to “swallow [their] honest reactions and put on a polite smile” when they open a gift they don’t like. Parents don’t advise us to do this with the intent to foster an inevitably harmful habit. Regardless of their intent, they continue to help us hone our lying skills.

We’re expected to compromise our integrity for the sake of others. And not just when we open gifts. It happens on the playground too. If you see someone bullying someone else, the expectation is that you’ll keep your mouth shut and not tell anyone. Adults may shower us with reassurance that we won’t get in trouble for doing the right thing, but any kid who is wise to the current state of affairs knows that tattling is grounds for public persecution.

What it comes down to is that we lie because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of the consequences of telling the truth. And it’s this fear that keeps us lying over and over again.

Cosette Dawna Rae, MSW, says that in relationships, children and teens will lie as a means of escaping conflict. If a child perceives that telling the truth will compromise their safety or security, they’ll lie instinctually. While we might be quick to condemn these lies, they make sense. In an ideal relationship, there is mutual trust and both parties feel comfortable sharing. Not all relationships are ideal though, and in many cases, kids are afraid to disappoint their parents or to make them angry. I know many students who have lied to their parents about their test grades before. “How’d your test go?” a parent will ask. More than likely, a kid will be quick to say that it went fine. I’ve done this before. Telling the truth isn’t easy because we know that our parents don’t want to hear that we really struggled on a test. They want to hear that we aced it, because that’s what will make them proud, and nothing scares us more than the look of disappointment that a parent puts on when we tell them that we failed a test. The solution is painfully simple: lie about it. Don’t tell them about the bad grade. Problem solved.

When we’ve got nothing to be afraid of, we’ll tell the ugliest of truths. Look at serial killer Ted Bundy. Bundy was a misogynistic maniac who is said to have murdered over 100 women. Despite the plethora of incriminating evidence found against Bundy, he continued to plead not guilty, hoping he could beat a verdict that he knew would result in death. On January 17, 1989, plans to execute Bundy were finally solidified. Before being put to death, Bundy admitted to murdering over fifty women to Washington State Attorney General’s chief investigator, Dr. Bob Keppel. He also confessed to keeping the heads of some of his victims at his home and to engaging in necrophilia with some of his victims. These are details that Bundy withheld until he realized he was inevitably going to be executed. It wasn’t until he had nothing left to fear that he finally told the truth.

Whether it be learning the f-word or seeing bullying on the playground or committing dozens of murders, we’ve all got something to lie about. And as long as there are scary consequences for telling the truth, we’ll continue to lie until the end of time.

What truths would you tell if you had no fear?

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