Workshop Level 2: Basic Psychology
The Arc of Deception:
From Little Lies to Treachery
learn to lie at three and become expert at eight."
Old Peruvian proverb
Harmless Little Lies
Consider these familiar deceptions:
- Brush-off Lying
She tells her obnoxious cousin shes too tired
to meet for lunch. In truth, she wants to hike with a
- Dutiful Fake Praise
- When she finally asks, he automatically compliments
her on a really terrific haircut.
- Polite Pretending
Shes flashing a big fake smile at the guy
she hates at work.
- Insincere Promising
- Their awkward first date is ending and he says, Ill
call you. He doesnt mean it.
- Faking Intimacy
- She acts out a pretend orgasm so her husband can feel
a more complete connection. (Half the college women in
one study said they fooled lovers by pretending to climax.
Most of my students described these as little
white lies, necessary deceptions, harmless
fakery, and considerate fibs that smooth out life.
But almost one-third told me they were simply "little
frauds," "nasty habits," "signs of a weak
character." They couldnt endorse a single example
Maybe white lies are becoming more acceptable.
Thats the way it seems in my class discussions over
the past 20 years. Even those who aspire to a life of integrity
admit to using an occasional white lie. On the other hand,
few students saw themselves engaging in the following dishonesties
or little cheats even after I quoted findings
on their common occurance in most cultures:
- Exaggerating Accomplishments:
The resume says, Redesigned retrieval methodology
for data storage system. More accurately, he simply
downloaded some software and installed it.
- Winking at Financial Fraud:
Most of the guys at the office say its normal
to do a little undetectable cheating on tax returns. (In
one anonymous questionnaire study, 20% acknowledged evading
taxes; the IRS says it happens 35% of the time.) Why
do people cheat?
She smiles at a coworker even though she can't stand
If youre among the 35% that bends the
truth on tax returns, you may think, Can it be that
bad if millions do it? On the other hand, the more fastidious
taxpayer might feel, why compromise myself for a few
These two common dishonesties the "little
cheats" are driven by a decision to take advantage
of institutions. Some see them as little bits of cheating
required to survive and compete in modern society. When little
cheats are used in social life to take advantage of mates,
friends or acquaintances, the picture changes to pathological
deception. We dig into that in Level 3.
So white lies and little cheats are quite
different. Little cheats are done with awareness that
the deception crosses some legal or moral line for personal
gain. White lies are justified as protecting
someone from a harsh reality they are done with a sense
of kindness, generosity, even responsibility. So
the person telling a little white lie believes he or she is
performing a bit of caring. Generosity is not the rationale
for the litle cheats. Instead it's seen as a harmless way
to compete or to get what's owing. Later on, we entertain
the probability that both rationales suffer from self-deception:
white lies can disguise self-protection in the name of generosity
while little cheats reveal our lack of self-confidence, lack
of conscience or both.
The reasons we give for committing these little
lies to others and ourselves actually reveal quite a bit about
the way we work and get close. Understanding the mechanics
of white lies has been a surprising eye-opener for my students.
They frequently describe unexpected insight about their interpersonal
styles after completing exercises on the white lie.
Getting a handle on the human use of little
lies in this workshop is not just about morality or ethical
matters. Its about the practical psychology of knowing
when a lie is foolish or absolutely necessary. Our task is
to illuminate how things work without much bias or any preaching.
[Little White Lies and Brutal Truths and Basically, Im
an Honest Person--to come].
The Big Lie
The next two stories shift our focus toward
the obviously big lie that is exposed and backfires on the
liar. For us, big lies are those that alter lives dramatically.
Think of them as dangerous, costly, big fat lies.
Im not sure how common it is to think
that lies are only costly when discovered. A lie becomes
big when it preys on the liars conscience or leaves
the liar worried about being exposed. (Liars without
conscious are another story that we'll get to soon.) It is
true that the big lie fails to exact a cost when the victim
doesnt have the slightest suspicion and the liar is
a Machiavellian or psychopath who feels little guilt. That
combination doesn't happen often. Most of the time, big lies
cannot be well maintained by mentally healthy people.
Important lies in important relationships
usually crumble in time to expose a nervous liar and the liar's
stunned "fool." Becoming someone's fool can bring
pain, hate and revenge. Becoming an exposed liar can bring
mortification, vulnerability and the desperate urge to cover
up with more lies. Most bright people know big lies are unsafe.
Knowing that awful outcomes are pretty predictable, why do
so many gamble on such bad odds? Taking big risks by deceiving
someone important starts with self-deception, desperation
and failure in interpersonal intelligence topics addressed
later.The obvious but overlooked point by someone about to
make a big lie in an important relationship is the emotional
energy needed to maintain deception, manage suspicion and
all sorts of little stressors that erode our sense of well-being.
These next two lies look very different, but
they are both used cover up shameful behavior a common
cause of big lies.
A traditional cheat
with common cover-up: At first the young couple
just enjoyed each others company and agreed not to get
upset about seeing other people. But things changed. During
a fight she started about him seeing someone else, he proposed
marriage rather than lose her. The bachelor party for this
popular guy is going strong with a stripper his friends hired
for the night. Now shes doing a bump-and-grind while
the nervous groom drinks too much. Soon his friends and the
woman literally push him to join her sexy dancing as she slowly
leads him toward the bedroom and they disappear. He surprises
himself. The next morning, hes feeling terrible about
what he can remember. And he remembers enough to feel painful
regret and foresee the misery it will give his bride-to-be.
Shes joked about having him all to herself once they
marry. But last night we weren't married, he rationalizes.But
in his heart, the excuse feels lame. Maybe Ill
tell her some other time. I just cant do that to her
before the ceremony. What she doesnt know wont
hurt her. A risky rationale because all the guys believe
he cheated and their girlfriends are close to his fiance
increasing the odds of being found out.
A costly cover-up
of embarrassing behavior: As the new rabbi rushes
out, his secretary stops him: Oh, Rabbi, dont
forget to visit Mrs. G in the hospital, shes slipping.
But in a few minutes he does forget. Theres so many
stops to make on this terrribly crowded day. Later he learns
that Mrs. G has died. The thought of the familys added
pain from his neglect on her last day is unbearable. Hes
close to panic when Mrs. Gs son calls about memorial
arrangements. Unable to think, he blurts out a big lie about
never being told to visit. The son understands and forgives,
but when the rabbi's secretary hears, she mentions the awful
oversight to othersafter all, shes being blamed
for not telling the rabbi. It eventually gets to the synagogue
elders. They take it to the congregation who feel a loss of
trust not from the rabbis forgetting, but from his lie.
They terminate him. (Thanks to Rabbi Eli Schochet, who told
this story to the Jewish Journal.)
Two Heavy Deceptions: Betrayal & Treachery
Betrayal and treachery: two
words among the most evocative in our language. They conjure
up the misery when trust is shattered. Sometimes betrayal
and treachery are used interchangeably, but that's a mistake
because important psychological differences distinguish these
two types of ugly deception. Betrayal is the deliberate
or careless violation of a trust. Think of dishonoring
an important agreement, or breaking an understanding. It creates
a breach in human connection. It kills closeness at the same
time it belittles its victim. Treachery is worse. It's deliberate
Psychologists like to think of betrayal as the violation of
a "social contract." I've been trying to avoid that
stuffy term which describes the promises, agreements and understandings
that undergird every important relationship. But the strict
sound of "contract" sharpens the fact that commitments,
promises and expectations give shape to our personal lives
and careers. If you're thinking that social contracts can
be vague, we agree. That's one reason our culture is so muddled
when coping with betrayal. We don't do a good job managing
the intense emotions it produces. This profound form of deception
can leave both its victim and perpetrator undone for a long
Social science doesn't tell us much about
betrayal, but the essential nature of the chilling act shows
when we stop to examine the promises that are betrayed.
Vague & Precise Promises
Whether implicit or explicit, promises made
in important relationships establish expectations for safety,
pleasure and wellbeing. The implicit kind like vague promises
or unspoken assumptions about the future are surprisingly
common: "I'll try to do it later on if things look good."
Explicit promises about scheduling, money, religious practice,
loyalty, honesty and the life are precise. Reached after careful
conversation or a disagreement — sometimes they
sound like legalistic agreements. Rarely written, these mutual
understandings don't leave much wiggle room: "OK, agreed,
after Thanksgiving both of us will stop working Saturday afternoon
and spend time with each other."
We label these two types of promises implicit
and explicit social contracts:
- Here's an example of an implicit social contract: older
brother often waits for younger brother after school to
protect him from bullies. It just sort of happens, like
a caring habit. They never discuss the matter. But if
he didn't show up, it would feel like a broken promise.
- An explicit social contract: the young married couple,
aware of temptations, arrange to sit down and renew, or
change their vows to each other every year. They agree
on specific prohibitions (e.g. promising not to visit
that old girlfriend again) and specific freedoms (Its
OK to do a little innocent flirting with people at work).
We focus on the issues of clarity and commitment
in social contracts because those fuzzy, implicit contracts
are easier to betray: "But I never promised not to. .
. ." Implicit contracts give deceivers a handy rationale
for taking unfair advantage as well as an excuse if the betrayal
On the other hand, explicit promises feel
so legalistic that the absence of trust they suggest can trouble
a romantic heart. Because they raise the difficult topic of
mistrust, theyre difficult to arrange in social life.
Prenuptial agreements can be controversial and uncomfortable
because some feel such businesslike hardness is contrary to
the profound trust of durable love which shouldn't need small
Betrayals come in
- Unintentional betrayal: It happenshe forgets
and mentions her secret to a gossip. Or she misjudged
the importance he placed on her promise. Misunderstanding,
forgetfulness, low interpersonal intelligence contribute
to unintentional betrayal. Decent people betray those
they love by mistake. When that happens, the betrayer
may suffer longer that the victim.
- Emotionally charged betrayal: Mentally healthy
deceivers are motivated by one of the standard strong
emotions: lust, greed, terror, pride, desperation, duty,
idealism any emotion or belief strong enough to
overcome a working conscience. Sometimes betrayal is a
forced choice: e.g. a child chooses one religion from
the two passionately espoused by competing parents.
- Impulsive betrayal: Impulsive temperments create
impulsive, thoughtless acts. Betrayers are overwhelmed
by some sudden urge that disregards loyalty and overcomes
judgment. The young rabbi who betrayed his congregation's
trust was ruined by a thoughtless impulse.
- Skillful betrayal requires an experienced betrayer:
Pathological liars with little or no conscience do not
need some strong emotion or loss of impulse control to
motivate betrayal. They are experts at gaining confidence
(police nicknamed this type confidence man
akacon-artist) to gain an advantage. Compulsive
liars can be awful at empathy which makes them awful at
developing a conscience. These folks don't anticipate
guilt when deciding to lie, so betrayal can be motivated
by the logic of any personal gain worth the risk of getting
caught. Promises can be made recklessly with easy deceit.
Diagnosed as machiavellians or psychopaths by psychologists,
these emotionally blunted yet talented manipulators may
be the largest group of betrayers in society.
Some sociologists might disagree with the
last statement and instead rank non-pathological unfaithful
husbands and wives as the largest group of personal betrayers.
But betrayal is not the usual label for breaking the social
contract of sexual fidelity. Infidelity, cheating,
hanky-panky are common words for the most frequent
and visible violation of the monogamy promise. These broken
social contracts are familiar in both real life and fiction
(one study argues that 43% of men report cheating during the
first seven years). [Ann, insert latest
findings on men/women by end of week].
If you think about the nature of sexual infidelity,
it fits the definition of betrayal perfectly breaking
trust in an important relationship. So why don't guys say,
"I betrayed her" instead of "I made a mistake,"
"I committed a little indiscretion," "I fooled
around on the side"? Did people use the word betrayal
for cheating 50 years ago? My guess is that it's awfully hard
to thinking of ourselves or our lovers as betrayers. That's
worse than being a liar, which is an unbearable identity for
anyone but a Machiavellian. Euphemisms aside, betrayal is
a frequent event in modern romance and only the angry
victim calls the violation betrayal.
Being betrayed by a lover can, of course,
crush any loyal partner and usually stimulates a wish for
revenge. Sometimes that brings violence or abandonment or
reciprocation of betrayal: vengeance. When sexual
betrayal is deliberately used for revenge, it becomes a form
The Epitome of Deception is Treachery
A common form of treachery occurs when a wounded
romantic partner openly takes a new lover for revenge. Like
most treachery, its a hostile form of betrayal that
is a tactical attempt to damage. Revenge is often the motive,
with the avenger needing to be seen as hurt. The psychology
of romantic treachery is often about restoring wounded pride,
repairing lowered self-esteem from the humiliation: Nobody
does that to me and gets away with it. Thats why
successful treachery is called sweet revenge.
Its easy to overlook the tragic interpersonal
treachery that is a byproduct when someone betrays his country,
family, company, etc. Such treason and treachery often sweeps
up unsuspecting accomplices whose trust was exploited. These
shocked victims can lose their innocence, friend and reputation
in a single blow. Wherever it appears, treachery is
always a brutal variety of betrayal. Both fit under
the rubric of psychological violence.
So our tour of deceiving others has progressed
from the simple white lie to premeditated vengeful treachery.
Time to proceed to the next level of the writers Deception