Decoding the science of lying

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When I was a little girl, my parents used to load my sister and me into the car on weekends and drive to our grandparents’ house near Detroit.  My grandfather was an immigrant — a pugnacious, up-by-the-bootstraps businessman who didn’t get past fifth grade. But whatever he may have lacked in education, he made up for in certainty.

He won every argument, big or small, by trotting out what he called the “actual facts,” usually at top volume. After each visit, on the drive back home, my sister and I would sit in the backseat and snicker about my grandfather and his “actual facts” — a ridiculous construction we saw as proof of his lack of erudition. We knew facts were facts. Period. 

{mosads} It’s astounding to me that almost 50 years later, the world is talking about “actual facts”— to say nothing of “alternative facts” and their equally scurrilous cousins, “fake news” and “post-truth.” When my grandfather distorted the truth, it didn’t really matter. The stakes were low. There is nothing low-stakes about the lying that’s going on these days — the official sources of lies, the audacity of lies, the volume of lies and the ability of lies to proliferate instantly, globally, across multiple channels.


At National Geographic, where we proudly and steadfastly have stood on the side of science and the facts for nearly 130 years, it seemed like a perfect time to investigate humanity’s complicated relationship with the truth. In short: Why do we lie?

It turns out that human beings are basically hard-wired to lie. We learn to lie just like we learn to walk and talk, with some researchers seeing the emergence of lies in children as a sign that cognitive growth is on track. We tell lies for every possible reason — to cover up mistakes, to gain a financial upper hand, to be polite, to be mean. Some people lie pathologically, ignoring or disregarding reality; others lie to themselves, creating false but comforting self-images. Teenagers tell the most lies, with six in 10 telling as many as five untruths a day. By the time we hit our 60s, just three in 10 of us tell that many whoppers.

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Lying is embedded in our culture: Everyone can recite famous lies and famous liars. Your personal list reflects your age, experiences and interests. Here’s mine: 

  • Sports lies — Lance Armstrong;
  • Presidential lies — Richard Nixon;
  • Money lies — Bernie Madoff; and 
  • Professional lies — a tie between former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair and former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, who both famously fabricated articles. 

In many ways, we cannot help ourselves from lying. “Lying is so easy compared to other ways of gaining power,” Sissela Bok, a Harvard University ethicist, told us for our June magazine cover story, “Why We Lie.” “It’s much easier to lie in order to get somebody’s money or wealth than to hit them over the head or rob a bank.”

That’s certainly correct, and technology has made it all the more terrifying. Lies now spread faster while our ability to detect them is as poor as ever. At the same time, researchers are finding that a lot of lies stick, even when they’re contradicted by ample evidence. Entire swaths of society seem unable to separate truth from fiction, retreating into ideological camps, the actual facts be damned.

Four hundred years ago, Galileo argued that the Earth and planets revolve around the sun. His scientific theories, which turned out to be true, got him into big trouble with the Vatican. He was put on trial and branded a heretic. Supposedly, we’ve come a long way since then.

Yet today, scientific knowledge is under furious attack — from the proof of evolution and climate change to the demonstrated safety of vaccines and GMOs. As ridiculous as it sounds, there are people who believe fluoridating water is a communist plot, and that the moon landing was faked. Today we have access to irrefutable data — double- and triple-checked and verified — yet the facts are questioned by millions of people who reject the findings of experts and instead rely on their own sources of information and dubious interpretations of research.

If anything, the problem is getting worse. Today, thanks to social media and fractured media, audiences are presented an equal counterpoint to every point, no matter how fantastical. We in the media have played a role in this. For too long, in the name of “balance,” we gave equal weight to both sides of an argument, even if there weren’t two credible sides. Decades of “he said, she said” coverage of climate change is a good example of this false balance, even though it should have been presented as he said, he said, he said, he said.

We can hope that exploring the science of lies may help our collective rescue. One expert — Dan Kahan at Yale — is looking at how what one believes about climate change has become an entrenched part of people’s sense of self.

That means you can bombard a person with as many facts as you want in an effort to change their mind, but the person will reject the facts because they threaten his or her sense of self-identity. The solution, says Kahan, is to make the facts palatable — to customize them and present them in such a way to appeal to the audience’s ideological taste buds. He’s trying to crack the code on how to present information in ways that makes people feel safe, not assaulted. That’s something we can all learn from.

Surely, it used to be simpler. When I started my career in newspapers 37 years ago, we used to say, “Find the truth and print it.” And that’s what we should do, then and now. But we are at a moment in our history where that has never been more important or more challenging in the face of brutal partisan politics, social media, a divided country and a proliferation of unapologetic official lies. Perhaps understanding the science of lies will lead us back to the actual facts.


Susan Goldberg (@susanbgoldberg) is the editorial director of National Geographic Partners and editor-in-chief of National Geographic Magazine.

 The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Alternative facts Fake News Lying National Geographic Science Susan Goldberg

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