Dr. Charles Emmrys Ph.D. L. Psych
A lie is most often defined as a false statement deliberately intended to deceive or mislead another. Socially, lying is considered unacceptable and being caught in a lie has a huge social cost. Yet for most of us, lying is a regular and almost necessary part of life. If asked by our host if we are enjoying our meal, we will usually give an enthusiastic yes even if the food is not to our liking. When asked how we are feeling, we will often say we feel fine when it is not the case. This innocent lying is a way to manage our social relations and minimize conflict in our everyday lives. As long as lying is used discreetly and wisely in this way, the behavior is not problematic and rarely comes to the attention of others.
Most individuals will know when lying is OK and when it is totally inappropriate. If asked by a superior if a work project has been completed and handed in, most would know that lying here is inappropriate even if saying no leads to some negative feedback. To say Yes when this was not true would lead to a loss of trust by those one works with, something one would tend to avoid at all cost.
Making these judgments about how to respond is a sophisticated mental process that involves a good understanding of the social context and a sense of the importance of the information being asked for. Also involved are a series of cognitive functions including short and long term memory. If any of these abilities are compromised, a person's ability to make these judgments will be seriously affected and lying may occur where it shouldn’t.
There are some children and youth, however, for whom lying is a pervasive and persistent behavior that interferes seriously with social relations and family communication. These are individuals who seemingly lack the ability to discern when lying is appropriate and when it is inappropriate or destructive. They will often lie for no discernable reason as if not telling the truth was a preferred way of responding. They will also persist in a lie even when it is clear that they have been discovered and that those concerned know the truth. For these children and youth, the consequences of lying are often considerable. Friendships are difficult to maintain teachers and other adults refuse to trust them and family relationships become strained. But despite all this, lying often persists.
Various approaches have been used to try and eliminate this behavior. Reinforcements and punishments have been tried with often disappointing results. Some therapists suggest that parents not ask their children/youth questions that they are likely to lie to such as "have you done your homework?" to simply avoid the stress of getting a false response. Few programs attempt to promote telling the truth through skills acquisition.
The following is an attempt to do just that. From this program's perspective lying is seen as a failure to acquire a specific set of skills needed to discern when telling the truth is important and when it is not. Learning to tell the truth consists therefore in acquiring those skills that others use to make those critical judgments.
A New Understanding of Lying
For one to understand what lying is, one must first appreciate how complex telling the truth is. Let us look at the various steps involved in telling the truth.
The first step is hearing and understanding the question. In this phase, the person should also become aware of the importance of the question and of the consequences of telling or not telling the truth. Here, a person's social sensitivities and ability to discern the consequences of one's acts is important.
When a person is asked a question about something they have or have not done, the second step in telling the truth is to mentally withdraw from the present and return to the past when the event being asked about actually happened to figure out what is true and what is not. This is a complex mental task involving both short term and long term memory. It also involves a certain degree of mental flexibility. Children with a diagnosis of ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome or Oppositional Defiant disorder are examples of groups whose disorder negatively affects many of these functions. For them, getting in touch with what is true is more difficult than it would be for children or youth who do not have these disorders.
Note that problems with mental flexibility or with short or long term memory do not mean that a child is less intelligent. These problems do not affect intelligence.
Once the person knows what is true and what is not, he/she must reconnect with the person asking the question to see what importance the question and answer has for him or her and how one response or another will affect their relationship. Social judgment and relationship skills all play a part in this step.
After this, the individual must decide if they should tell the truth or if they should lie. This decision is usually taken by looking at the consequences of lying and the consequences of telling the truth both for self, the one asking and for others that may be affected by the answer.
In the final step, the person gives his/her answer.
Learning to move through these steps is difficult and is usually not mastered until age six or seven. Adults usually don't expect children under six to reliably tell the truth in response to complex questions because they sense accurately that they do not have the skills required to do so. When children seven or older fail consistently to tell the truth, adults become worried and fear that the behavior is somehow indicative of some kind of moral deficiency or bad intent.
When we interviewed children and adolescents with lying problems a large majority reported a common pattern of responding. The pattern was as follows:
During step one, most children/youth reported understanding the question but did not look at the consequences of telling or not telling the truth. What they reported is sensing that they were potentially in trouble. This caused instant stress which seemed to hinder the other mental processes necessary to truth telling.
Most then describe skipping steps 2, 3, and going directly to step four. At step four, they did not decide if they should tell the truth since they were not in touch with what really happened. In effect, telling the truth was not possible for them. What they reported doing was deciding which answer was more likely to reduce the stress they were feeling. Once that answer was identified it was produced immediately. After it was produced, the child or youth often reported feeling relieved. Parents consistently confirm this by noting that there seems almost no time between asking the question and getting the false answer. Truth telling takes time. They also confirm that instead of being anxious after telling a lie, these children or youth seem calm. This shotgun responding pattern differs from that of more competent truth telling children and youth of the same age who take slightly longer to produce a response.
Once an answer is produced, children and youth with lying problems consistently defend the answer as if they were not only trying to convince the adults around them but that they were also trying to convince themselves. In fact some younger children actually seem to succeed in convincing themselves according to their parents. What is significant about this part of the process is that believing the lie is possible for these children because they are not in touch with the truth.
In time this way of responding becomes a pattern so well developed that it looks like a reflex. This is particularly true if the questions the child/youth is asked are those for which negative answers result in punishments or negative feedback.
A therapeutic intervention has been developed based on this understanding that has been shown clinically to be effective for preteens and for younger children who are motivated. It can be made available to a licensed mental health clinician free of charge simply by communicating with us.
If you are a licensed mental health care professional and you want to receive a copy of the Lying Cessation Program free of charge you can contact us and we will gladly forward you the material.