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While recognizing that lying is a universal lubricant of social life, psychiatrists are seeking to determine when it becomes destructive and just which kinds of mental problems it can typify. An article in the current American Journal of Psychiatry calls attention to the general neglect of lying as a topic for psychiatric research and marks the first systematic attempt to understand the role lying plays in normal everyday life as well as in specific psychiatric problems.
Psychologists who are studying how and why children learn to lie are finding that certain lies play positive roles in a child’s emotional development. A child’s first successful lie, for instance, is seen by some researchers as a positive milestone in mental growth. While the recent research sees lying that does damage as a matter for concern, it is pragmatic in taking the occurrence of lying in social life for granted. One study, for instance, found that, on average, adults lie – or admit to doing so – 13 times a week.
”Lying is as much a part of normal growth and development as telling the truth,” said Arnold Goldberg, a professor of psychiatry at Rush Medical College in Chicago. ”The ability to lie is a human achievement, one of those abilities that tends to set them apart from all other species.” Psychiatrists see lying as pathological when it is so persistent as to be destructive to the liar’s life, or to those to whom he lies. The most blatant lying is found in the condition called ”pseudologia fantastica,” in which a person concocts a stream of fictitious tales about his past, many with a small kernel of truth, all self-aggrandizing.
”One patient blithely told me that he spoke his first complete sentence at three months, at three years gave sermons to crowds at his church work, and had a job at a news magazine where he made $8 million a week,” said Bryan King, a psychiatrist at the U.C.L.A. School of Medicine. Dr. King wrote the article on pathological lying in the American Journal of Psychiatry with Charles Ford, a psychiatrist at the University of Arkansas Medical School, and Marc Hollender, a psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
”Pathological liars seem utterly sincere about their lies, but if confronted with facts to the contrary, will often just as sincerely reverse their story,” Dr. King said. ”Their stories have a believable consistency, but they just do not seem able to monitor whether they are telling the truth or not.”
Research suggests that this most extreme form of lying is associated with a specific neurological pattern: a minor memory deficit combined with impairment in the frontal lobes, which critically evaluate information, Dr. King said. In such cases, the person suffers from the inability to assess the accuracy of what he says, and so can tell lies as though they were true.
Not all pathological lying stems from such neurological difficulties. Psychiatrists are also grappling with lies that typify certain emotional disorders, and are told by people who know they are lying. Dr. King’s article describes five varieties of lies, each of which comes more naturally to those who suffer from one or another of five common personality problems.
While such lies could be told by anyone, they are far more likely in those with the following personality problems, according to Dr. King, because each kind of lie springs from the pressing psychological needs at the core of the disorders:
- Manipulative lies are the hallmark of the sociopath, or ”antisocial personality,” who is driven by utterly selfish motives. Such people are not necessarily criminals; they may gravitate toward the fringes of trades like sales, where their bent toward lying may serve them well. Since sociopaths feel no remorse or empathy for their victims, they are capable of the most cold-hearted of lies.
- Melodramatic lies which make them the center of attention are natural to the hysteric, or ”hystrionic personality.” Such people are searching desparately for love. They are also more taken with emotional truths than the facts of a situation. ”Casual lies are to the hysteric what license is to the poet,” according to Dr. King.
- Grandiose lies typify the narcissist, whose deep need to win the constant approval of others impels him to present himself in the most favorable light. They are prone to exaggerate their abilities or accomplisments in order to seem more impressive. Because narcissists feel entitled to special treatment – for instance, believing that ordinary rules do not apply to them – they can be reckless in their lies.
- Evasive lies are typical of the borderline personality, whose wildly vacillating moods and impulsive actions constantly get him into trouble. Many of the borderline person’s lies are told to avoid blame or shift responsibility for his problems to others.
- Guilty secrets account for many lies of the compulsive person, a type who generally is scrupulously honest. Compulsives pride themselves on following the rule and attention to facts and details. But they also suffer from a fear of being shamed, and so lie to prevent other people from finding out about things they feel would meet with disapproval. Their lies are often mild, about things most others would find no cause for lying; one man, for instance, lied to his wife to keep her from finding out about his being in therapy. Studying the Normal Lie
This research and the other recent studies of the topic were done in America and England; the psychologists do not know to what extent the findings apply to other cultures. Along with the new focus on lying in psychiatric problems, there is intense research on the role of lying in normal development. Researchers feel they must first understand what is normal about lying before they can know what leads to pathological lying. Oddly, the research has resulted in an appreciation of the positive role lying plays in psychological growth, with some child experts seeing great significance in a child’s first lie.
In this view, which is part of psychoanalytic ”self” theory, the child’s first lie, if successful, marks the initial experience that his parents are not all-knowing. And that realization, which usually occurs in the second year of life, is crucial to the child’s development of the sense that he is a separate person with a will of his own, ”that he can get away with things,” Dr. Goldberg said. But that lie also is the beginning of the end of the idealization of one’s parents that all infants feel, he added. ”The first time you see a limit to your parents’ powers is a developmental step forward, towards a more realistic view of others,” he said.
The ability to lie, in the view of other researchers, is a natural byproduct of a child’s psychological growth. ”The crucial human skills are among those that equip children to lie: independence, intellectual talents, the abilities to plan ahead and take the other person’s perspective and the capacity to control your emotions,” said Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, whose book, ”Why Kids Lie” will be published later this year by Scribner’s. The years from 2 to 4 seem to mark a crucial period for children in mastering the art of the lie, according to studies by Michael Lewis, a psychologist at Rutgers Medical School. Peeking at Toys: ”In one study we’ve just completed with 3-year-olds, we set up an attractive toy behind the child’s back and tell him not to look at it while we leave the room,” Dr. Lewis said. ”About 10 percent don’t peek while we’re gone. Of the rest, a third will admit they peeked, a third will lie and say they did not peek and a third will refuse to say.”
”Those who won’t answer seem to represent a transition group, who are in the process of learning to lie, but don’t do it well yet,” said Dr. Lewis. ”They are visibly the most nervous. Those who say they did not look -who lie – looked the most relaxed. They’ve learned to lie well. There seems to be a certain relief in knowing how to lie effectively.” By and large, children lie for the same reasons adults do: to avoid punishment, get something they want or make excuses for themselves. However, preteen-agers usually have not yet learned to tell the white lies of adults, which work as social lubricants or to soothe another’s feelings, researchers say.
One of the more common kinds of lies for preteen-agers is the boast, inventing or embellishing on one’s deeds, which is meant to win the approval and admiration of one’s peers. Grandiosity is frequent in children of this age, such as boasts that one is able to do things like ski or speak a foreign language, when it is simply not true. ‘Fine-Tuning Their Superego’
”Children at that age are fine-tuning their superego, or conscience,” said Dr. Goldberg. ”The first evidence of pathological lying shows up during these years, in children who have a faulty superego and think they can get away with anything.” Sometime between the ages of 10 and 14, most children become as capable as adults in their lies, according to Dr. Ekman. ”If a child did not develop the abilities that allow him to lie, he would remain immature,” he said. ”The question is, will they lie, and if so, why?” Adolescence marks another point in development where lying takes on a special psychological significance. ”Adolescence is a time of a renewed search for ideals, when the child’s ideals undergo a major transformation,” said Dr. Goldberg. ”The adolescent is seeking a model, a perfect person to emulate. It’s much like the moment in infancy before they realized their parents’ imperfections.”
This reassessment of values can lead the teen-ager to ”a sense of that he can do whatever he wants,” Dr. Goldberg added. ”They start to test limits all over again, to see what they can get away with – and lying to parents can be a large part of that.” Although there are obvious problems in finding out exactly how common lying is, studies based on reports by parents and teachers put the frequency of children who lie more than occasionally as about 1 in 6. But more than that – up to 1 in 4 adults – will admit to having lied fairly frequently as children. In only about 3 percent of children, though, is lying so constant that it is a serious problem, according to Magda Stouthamer-Loeber, a psychologist at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh. Serious Lies, Serious Trouble
Understandably, children who get into trouble frequently are also those who tend to lie the most. Thus children who are brought to clinics for mental health problems – mainly problems in conduct like aggressiveness – are two and a half times as likely as other children to be chronic liars, according to a review of findings in the Clinical Psychology Review by Dr. Stouthamer-Loeber.
Children who are chronic liars, studies have found, tend to get into more serious trouble as they grow older. For example, a British study found that 34 percent of boys who were rated by their parents or teachers as lying had criminal offenses 15 years later. And in an American study of 466 men from the Cambridge, Mass., area, those labeled as ”liars” while they were in elementary school were significantly more likely than other boys to have had a conviction for a crime such as stealing by the time they reached their 20’s.
Still, researchers are uncertain just how much lying is a cause, and how much a symptom, of the problem. ”We don’t know if lying is a stepping stone that leads to maladjustment, a warning sign of later trouble, or is just one feature of a larger problem,” said Dr. Ekman.
Children who are chronic liars tend to come from families where they were poorly supervised or felt rejected by their parents, according to research with more than 300 boys from 9 to 16 by Dr. Stouthamer-Loeber, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.
”Happily married mothers supervised their boys more than did mothers who were not happy in their marriages or who were single,” said Dr. Stouthamer-Loeber. ”It is easy to imagine that parents under pressure have less time and inclination to keep an eye on their children. And when there is less supervision, lying is less risky.”