Natural born liars

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 30 May 2023


It is a given that all politicians across the globe and throughout history lie. Why?

Because they are human. All humans lie.

You and I and the next guy lie on a daily basis. Lying is fundamental to who we are as humans.

At first glance one wishes to reject such a notion but studies show that dishonesty and deception are bred in our DNA, according to evolutionary psychologists.

Research on the act or art of lying is relatively new, though it has accelerated in the last few years, because of new discoveries in the field of psychology. It was first described in the medical literature late in the 19th century by psychologist G Stanley Hall and Dr Anton Delbruck in 1891 as “normal” behaviour.

Articles in the Scientific American and National Geographic triggered our curiosity, as we started to dig further.

Tens of thousands of years ago, during times of famine, anyone caught stealing food would be cast off by his community. He quickly learned that if he lied successfully he would be more likely to survive. Lying therefore was passed through his genes to future generations.

Survival is man’s primary concern.

Psychologists observed babies crying and they concluded that even before their first year, they learn to fake it. By age two, they can bluff; by four they use flattery and by five they are capable of outrageous lies. By age nine, they become masters of the cover-up. Facial expressions can mask an individual’s inner emotional experience, even in children.

Criminals are set free because they master the art of lying “with a straight face”.

Scientists conclude that lying and deception, both verbal and facial, is the result of having been subjected to “evolutionary pressure and are positively related to other cognitive capacity associated with psychological fitness”.

Psychologist Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts conducted a study which secretly videotaped students who were asked to talk to a stranger. Sixty per cent lied at least once in 10 minutes.

Another study by David Knox and Caroline Schacht found that 92 per cent of students had lied to a current or previous partner. The other eight per cent refused to admit.

Mark Twain wrote more than a century ago: “Everybody lies everyday, everywhere, awake, asleep, in his dreams, in his joy, in his mourning.”

Lying is a human phenomenon.

Not so fast — we are not the only species to exploit a lie. Animals lie too. Scientists have discovered the art of deception is prevalent among animals. They change pigment, colour and make an effort to send inaccurate messages with the intent to deceive.

Plants also lie. Take the mirror orchid, it displays beautiful blossoms that resemble the female wasp and manufactures a chemical cocktail that simulates the pheromones released by females to attract male wasps until enough pollen is clinging to their bodies, before they fly off. Does the orchid intends to deceive the wasp? Indeed. Its fakery is built in its physical design, so their genes will be readily passed on and on.

Nature favours deception because it provokes survival advantages.

Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as is our need to trust others, which ironically makes us very naïve at detecting lies.

Being deceitful is woven into our fabric so much so that scientists may be right to conclude: “To lie is human.”

What about religion? All religions teach us that lying is the most direct offence against the truth and truth is the virtue which religion guides us to seek.

“A lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and his world to the Lord,” to quote the Christian Scriptures. Jesus not only taught the truth but said, “I am the Truth.” He is the source of truth.

The ninth commandment states: “Thou shall not bear false witness”, meaning you cannot lie. “He who works deceit shall not dwell in my house”. What do 2,604,381,000 Christians in the world feel about lying? Some 91 per cent of the world’s population lie regularly.

Islam denounces lying as vigorously as Christianity. The Quran is explicit in several verses as in Surat Al-Nour: “The curse of Allah be on him if he is one of the liars.”

A large number of Quranic verses condemn the sin of lying and describe its evil consequences. “When a believer speaks a lie, he becomes prone to commit every other sin and when this happens he commits kufr then he enters hell.”

What do 2,006,931,770 Muslims think of that?

How do we reconcile the teachings of our religions with the scientific nature of our instincts?

In this age of social media when we are being lied to constantly, how do we distinguish truth from lies?

Not all lies are equal. Sometimes we lie to be kind; not to hurt others feelings. Often we lie by omission. We lie to avoid punishment. We lie to secure our jobs. We lie to survive.

Perhaps God in his mercy will forgive those “little white lies”, perhaps not, for it is still an untruth. Honesty is kinder than deceit.

It is when politicians lie that it is the gravest offence, because it affects the citizens of their countries that are deceived, disillusioned and develop a lack of trust in their leaders. Yet they manage to get away unscathed.

They are still human, after all.


“The lie is a condition of life.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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