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I Swear I Didn’t Do It

When did you last tell a lie? To your boss, perhaps? Your doctor? Or (heaven forbid) your significant other or spouse? How about the IRS? Though our society frowns on it, and there is clearly a cultural virtue in being able to sniff out lies, most people tell them, large and small, on a regular basis, whether for financial gain (check’s in the mail); to seem more brave (I was doing 120); hot (; experienced (resumes); or, under more dire circumstances, to stay out of jail. Poll any population on a prison yard and you’ll find nothing but innocent men. How can no one there be guilty of a crime? The answer lies… in a lie.

You Lie Like a Rug

Are we born liars? Infants learn early that with the false cries comes mommy’s breast, and thus rewarded, toddlers morph into proud descendants of early primates, who, as science has proved, lied to advance their own interests and thereby cement their roles within the group. And they call children “innocents”. Some recent research has us telling two lies a day, women lying to make others feel good, and men lying to make themselves look better. Another study has strangers telling each other three lies within ten minutes of meeting each other – about how they’re feeling; what they’ve just eaten; or how much they earn.

An entire science of investigative police work has been built around lie detection, including the infamous (and easily fooled) lie detector machine, which clocks any rise in blood pressure while a subject is prevaricating—suggesting that lying is perhaps an abnormal condition, and not our default mode of being. Any tour of a dating site or a bar at last-call may reveal otherwise.

Political pundits make entire careers, on either side, left or right, parsing politicians’ lies, which to even a casual observer can be considered every word coming out of their mouths. And it can be said of the entire noble profession of acting that it is all one big lie, that is, people pretending to be someone they are not. Who doesn’t go along for the ride?

Which Lie Did I Tell?

One thing is true of liars: they need good memories, because the quickest way to get caught in a lie is to forget it. Ask any chronically late employee, or a kid who ditches school. Forgetting is the liar’s curse, and the usual prelude to crocodile tears, whichin sifting through deceptions in the royal court, Shakespeare has Hamlet call the act of “protesting too much”.

Modest as these “white lies” are, literature and history have graced us with some epic liars: 16th century writer Niccolo Machiavelli, famous for his political tract, The Prince, wrote another controversial book, The Art of War, which could easily be retitled The Art of Lying because so much of his political strategy hinges, not on deception, but in getting away with it. Japan’s most famous Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote in his immortal The Book of the Five Rings that “all strategy is falsehood”, and based on his stat sheet, he should know: he never lost a duel.

In the Bible, the lowly serpent gets the rap for deceiving Eve, and Eve (and some would argue all her daughters) got blamed for deceiving Adam. But what about God? He warns the First Couple that they’ll drop dead on the spot if they eat fruit from the Tree of Life. That never happens. Some consider this the foundational lie of all monotheism. And no one is worse off for it.

Would You Buy a Used Horse from this Man?

In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus was “a master deceiver among mortals”. After all, it was he who sends the Trojan horse into Troy, lies to the goddess Athena, and to his wife, Penelope, and then his father-in-law (no blame there) Laertes. In the same story, Achilles, another noble warrior, detests liars, yet it is Odysseus after whom the book is named, and who remains one of our great epic Heroes. When it comes to legacy, telling the truth may be overrated.

Iago, in Shakespeare’s Othello, emerges as perhaps the most notorious liar in all of literature, for it is his lies about the faithful Desdemona that drives the passionately jealous Othello into tragically murdering her for infidelity she does not commit. Such is the stuff of tragedy, and if anyone calls you an “Iago”, rest assured they do not trust your veracity.

With a tad less pathos but far more gumption, in 1918, right after the Russian Revolution, Anna Anderson conned the world into believing that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the last surviving member of the royal Romanov family – until that pesky DNA test proved her wrong.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Recall Bernie Madoff, the greatest con artist in history? By all accounts, he is the most respected “con” (convict) in Butler Federal Prison in North Carolina where he is serving multiple life sentences for lying to countless investors to the tune of $50 billion (paper wealth, at least), including the mighty SEC. And lest we forget the most epic GLOAT (Greatest Lie Of All Time) — “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” — which elevated (if that’s the right word) the Art of the Fib to a whole new threshold. This artful dodge must’ve been informed by pioneer comic, Lenny Bruce, whose advice to philanderers caught en flagrante delecto, which is to say, pants down, was “Deny it!”

In one recent Dutch study, the science of prevarication identified 18 traits that define a good liar. Grab pen and paper to keep score to see whether you qualify. The criteria include good acting; expressiveness; physical attractiveness; experience (in whatever you’re lying about); confidence (hence the word “con”); eloquence; emotional camouflage; rapid thinking; an ability to “bend” the truth, and as said before, a damn good memory. How’d you do? If you share many of these characteristics, yet find yourself to be an honest person, you may consider taking up sales… or politics.

Schindler or Swindler?

When is lying good? When it helps you get into that country club? (Who suffers then?) When your kids get into that private school? (Another arguably victimless sin) When you lie to ensure the greatest good for the greatest amount of people? (Think “Schindler’s List”) In his national bestseller, The 48 Laws of Power, a manifesto on successful business workplace strategy, author Robert Greene, in dispensing sage advice, relies heavily on “Machiavellian” distortions of truth. Law 12 requires an adept to “Use Selective Honesty to Disarm Your Victim”. Law 14 suggests that one “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy”, while Law 20 counsels to “Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker”. Ingenious stratagems all, and apparently effective, as they have been derived from master strategists over the years, including Genghis Kahn, and the venerable Chinese thinker Lao Tzu, who, 2600 years ago, wrote (the original) Art of War, feints and decoys from which still bear merit, in all walks life, to this day.

The inimitable Mark Twain (in truth, Samuel Clemens) advocated the “wisdom” of training oneself to lie thoughtfully and with good intention, suggesting that lying, on its face, is not an absolute evil, provided it has good purpose. He further counseled to lie “with head erect” (tax cheats take note) and “not haltingly” (ditto philanderers). In his own work, Clemens (or is it Twain?) proved he could walk the talk: one of his most enduring characters, Tom Sawyer, goes down as perhaps the biggest tall tale teller in American folklore.

Pinocchio Nose

Lies are a necessary part of life. Your wife’s bad new hairstyle? Call it “exquisite” or “bold”. Your husband’s new weight gain? Call it “muscle mass” or “bulk” — all with the one caveat that the worse the falsehood, the more sincere it must appear, and in the case of body fat or bad hairdos, easier said than done. And if you’re ever caught in a lie, or more delicately put, telling half-truths, remember the slyest of all rationalizations: 7 million years of Hominidae evolution have hard-wired us to lie, and our rightful place in human Evolution depends on it. And be sure to practice, because lies are an acquired social skill—proven by the fact that the most popular teenagers are also the best liars—and we all know how skills are perishable.

But lest you practice too much and risk becoming a pathological liar, that is, someone who lies so much they believe their own BS (clinical designation pseudologica phantastica), remember that, just as we may be hard-wired to lie, built into the human psyche is an innate lie detector, enabling—save for the most gullible few—people to discern fact from fiction. It’s based on one simple axiom: a lie is like pornography. You know it when you see it.