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Did you know there is a biological explanation for why some people lie and others are truthful? In this article we explore what a lie is, what kind of people lie, and the scientific research that has been done studying lies and their effect on the human mind.

What Qualifies as a Lie?

Is there a difference between a fib, a white lie, and total deception? Are actors lying when they perform on stage? Are poker players lying when they bluff to raise the stakes? Speaking in an interview to NPR’s RadioLab, Dr. Paul Ekman, a pioneering psychologist in the study of deception, defines a lie as a deliberate choice to deceive without notification. This leaves the aforementioned situational deceptions in the clear because one is aware that something misleading is going on.

Lying that Occurs in Nature

Humans aren’t the only animals that are known to be deceptive. One of the most well-known examples is that of the opossum playing dead. When an opossum feels threatened it involuntarily goes into a comatose-like state, fooling its predators. When the danger has passed, the opossum awakes from its deceptive nap.

The hognose snake is another example of lying that takes place in nature. When being attacked by a bird, the hog-nose snake will feign striking the bird, vomit blood, defecate, and roll over on its back, mouth open, pretending to be dead. All of these things, however, are just an elaborate act.

Compulsive Liars

Described as someone who habitually lies, a compulsive liar is someone who is believed to not have control over whether or not to deceive. The pathological liar is compelled to lie. Among the most notorious examples of people who constantly lie are people who con.

One well known con artist was Frank Abagnale, Jr., whose life was the basis for the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can. Abagnale successfully pretended to be a pilot, doctor, lawyer, sociology professor, and U.S. Bureau of Prisons agent. Eventually he was caught, but because of his skill in deceiving, the U.S. government employed him as a consultant to help them catch other scammers.

More recently, a woman known as the “Hipster Grifter” became an internet sensation as she travelled around the U.S. scamming friends and boyfriends out of thousands of dollars. A seemingly well-balance hip, heavily-tattooed young woman, Kari Ferrell scammed hospitals, friends, and lovers. Ferrell would lie to friends about having lung cancer, living with abusive adoptive parents, and fabricating an impressive (albeit false) resume. Ferrell landed herself on Salt Lake City’s (Utah) Most Wanted list before moving to New York to scam more people out of their money.

Biological Differences

A study conducted by University of Southern California professor Yaling Yang, took a look at the brains of people who compulsively lie. First, researchers gathered 108 people from the Los Angeles area’s temp agency pool of workers, believing that compulsive liars would have a hard time keeping steady employment. Of the 108 people who agreed to the study, 12 were found to have serious discrepancies in stories about their childhoods when verified with their family members. The researchers scanned the brains of all 108 people – compulsive liar or not – to see what their brains looked like.

The area of the brain behind the forehead is where moral decisions take place. The brain is constructed of two kinds of matter: white and gray. White matter is what moves thoughts from one part of the brain to another. Gray areas of the brain are where thoughts happen.

Going into the study, Yang hypothesized that the brain scans of liars would reflect a deficiency somewhere in the brain, as other similar mental disorders have shown. Instead, what researchers saw was an increase in white matter. Compulsive liars have as much as 25 percent more white matter in their brains, and can move thoughts in their brain with more ease than a normal person.

People Who Catch Liars

There are about 50 muscles in the face and these muscles combine into 3,000 different expressions, according to Ekman. Although one may try to convey a certain expression or project an emotion, there are tiny micro expressions that one cannot hide. Small muscle movements lasting about a 25th of a second give away a person’s true thoughts.

Ekman has created a computer program, called F.A.C.E. Training. This program trains people to recognize these small micro expressions and be able to catch people lying. His program has been used to train airport security guards, police, people who practice medicine, work in sales and education.

Lying to One’s Self

Studies have shown that people who deceive themselves are more successful as athletes, business people, work better in social situations, and actually live happier lives. In interviews with Olympic athletes, interviewers notice that many of the successful athletes imagine themselves as being the best or invincible.

People who are honest in surveys are also more honest with themselves, and are actually shown to be less happy in life. Very honest people see the world in its entirety – the cruelties, ugliness, and all – and are more depressed.

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