ALTRUISM? REALLY?

Altruism: an individual performing an action that is at a cost to him/herself (e.g., time, effort,  pleasure, quality of life, probability of survival or reproduction) that benefits – either directly or indirectly – another individual or group, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action.

 

Helping behavior may or may not be altruistic.  There are many factors affecting the urge to help, including the following.

 

1) Kin selection: both animals and humans are more helpful toward close kin that to distant kin or non-kin.  Perception of kinship is affected by whether the other looks like the giver, shares a family name (especially if it’s an unusual name), has a familiar scent (in animal groups), etc.  Think of kin as the in-group.

 

2) Vested interests: helping friends, allies, and similar social in-groups (besides avoiding vicarious suffering to the individual) may eventually benefit the altruist.  Extreme self-sacrifice may be adaptive if a hostile outgroup threatens to kill the entire group.  During the Allied campaign in Italy in the World War II, First Lieutenant John Robert Fox ordered an artillery strike on his position in Sommocolinia, sacrificing his own life to take out invading German forces and allow US troops to retreat safely.  He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

 

First Lieutenant John Robert Fox
3) Reciprocal altruism: helping others is more likely if there is a chance that they can and will reciprocate.  Therefore, people are more helpful it is likely that they will interact again in the future.  If a person sees others being non-cooperative, they are less likely to be helpful.  If someone helps first, the recipient of the help is more likely to help in return.  Think charities that give small gifts of stickers, notepads, or holiday cards when asking for a contribution.

 

Cleaner wrasse servicing a big-eye squirrelfish
4) People are more likely to cooperate on a task if they can communicate first.

 

Technology assisting Rohingya in getting aid
5) Groups of people cooperate more if they perceive a threat from another group.  In the insect world, this frequently happens when a colony or hive finds safety in numbers while moving larvae, a queen, or the entire group.  Ants, bees, termites, etc., form large masses and structures to complete the move.

 

Moving a beehive
6) People will help more when they know that their helping will be communicated to people they will interact with later, is publicly announced, is discussed, or is simply observed by someone else.

 

Peace Corps volunteers swearing in
7) Selective investment theory proposes that close social bonds, and associated emotional, cognitive, and neurohormonal mechanisms evolved in order to facilitate long-term, high-cost altruism benefiting those depending on another for group survival and reproductive success.  Humans, like many other animals, care for members of the species who cannot care for themselves, ultimately benefiting the species as a whole.

 

Very young and very old humans often require assistance and care
8) Microbiologists are studying whether some strains of microbes might influence the hosts to perform altruistic behaviors that are not immediately obvious as beneficial to the host.  There is a possibility, currently being researched, that the bacteria in a person’s gut could affect their behavior and that changes in the bacterial makeup (such as from taking antibiotics) might result in a change in personality.

 

At first glance, this monkey grooming a sleeping wild dog must be suicidal
Psychology has defined psychological altruism as “a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare.  Some definitions specify a lack of external rewards for altruistic behaviors.  Even when not immediately obvious, altruism is often rewarded in various ways (see above).  When there is no tangible reward, feeling good about oneself can be rewarding.  Regardless of whether an act is “true” altruism, there are many psychological studies that document the conditions under which people are more likely to help.
  1. Helping is more likely when the recipient is clearly in need.
  2. Helping is more likely when the giver feels personal responsibility for reducing the other person’s distress.
  3. A person with a high level of empathic concern is likely to help regardless of how many bystanders are around.
The Good Samaritan mosaic by Fr Marko Rupnik
The up-side of helping: volunteerism is strongly related to current and future health and well-being.
  • Older adults who volunteered were higher in life satisfaction and will to live, and lower on measures of depression, anxiety, somatization.
  • A 30-year study of the physical health of mothers found that 52% of those who did not volunteer experienced a major illness, compared to 36% of those who did.
  • A 4-year study of people 55 and older found that those who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 63% lower likelihood of dying.  Controlling for prior health status indicated that volunteerism accounted for a 44%reduction in mortality.
  • Research supports the idea that altruistic acts bring out happiness but it also works in the opposite direction: happier people are also kinder.
Philemon and Baucis offered complete hospitality to Zeus and Hermes in disguise, despite being paupers
When too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing:
 
  • Although positive effects of helping were still significant, one study of volunteers found that feeling overwhelmed by others’ demands had an even stronger negative effect on mental health.
  • While generous acts make people feel good about themselves, it is also important for recipients of assistance to appreciate—and show that their appreciation—for kindness and help.
  • Research indicates that a conscious focus on gratitude led to reductions in negative affect and increases in optimistic appraisals, positive affect, offering emotional support, sleep quality, and well-being for the grateful person.
  • Volunteer burn-out is especially common in high-stress positions, such as volunteer firefighters and medical providers at refugee camps.

Altruism is an important moral value for virtually all of the world’s religions:
  • Jews practice tzedakah, righteous behavior, providing support to make the world a more just place

  • Daya (compassion) and Daan (chairty) are two of the fundamental teachings of Hinduism

  • As part of aparigraha (non-attachment), Jains give away possessions and harm no living creature

  • Many Christian churches still practice tithing, donating 10% of all earnings

  • One of the five primary tenets of Islam is zakat, giving to charity

  • Sikhs practice seva, which is unselfish and unbiased aid to all

  • Buddhism teaches kindness toward all beings

Bottom line for writers: helpful characters are a good option, but be clear in your own head who, why, and under what circumstances the person helps.

 

PREJUDICE: WHAT IT IS, WHAT IT ISN’T

Is fear of grey people racism or able-ism?
Prejudice is generally defined in one of two ways: 

 

1)  A preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.  This is the broadest definition and allows for being biased in a positive direction (such as assuming that harpists are poised and elegant).  Wikipedia goes a step further, saying an affective feeling towards a person based on that person’s perceived group membership.

Deborah Henson-Conant

2)  An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reasons; unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature (like thinking all wrestlers are vulgar and uncouth), regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.

Prejudice is one of the root causes of human conflict.  Conflict, in turn, can result in crime, war, systemic repression, and mass murder.  Writers note: anything that creates conflict between characters or between a character and society can be used in your writing.

 

Where prejudice comes from:
 

1) We tend to take on the attitudes—including prejudices—of the social groups to which we belong.  Social groups include gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, religion, sexual orientation, profession, etc., etc., etc.  Adopting the attitudes of one’s social groups, including family, is often a means of fitting in and being liked.  Thus, prejudice may serve a social adjustive function.

Zebras always vote the same way in local elections.

2) Sometimes assuming a host of characteristics based on knowing one is cognitively efficient.  We don’t have to spend time gathering information or even stopping to think.

 

Cartoon by Dan Allison
3) And sometimes, prejudice serves an ego-defensive function.  If simply by being who we are we can feel superior to whole groups of people—e.g., all women, all blacks, all immigrants, all yellow ducklings—it helps counterbalance negative information about oneself (such as being chronically unemployed, ugly, or unpopular).

 

Like other attitudes, prejudice has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components.
 
  • Cognitive: overgeneralized beliefs or stereotypes.  E.g., Yankees fans are arrogant and obnoxious.
  • Affective: prejudice, feelings about people that could be positive but are more often negative.  For example, I hate Yankee fans They make me angry.
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
  • Behavioral: the treatment of others.  When negative, it is discrimination, and may lead to excluding, avoiding, or biased treatment of group members.  Example: I would never hire or become friends with a person if I knew he or she were a Yankees fan.
Although people can hold positive stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions based on group membership—for example, giving preferential treatment to people who are like themselves—it behooves us to focus on the negative because that is what is most problematic.

 

“How It Works” by xkcd
First impressions: When meeting new people, we automatically note race, gender, and age because these social categories provide a wealth of information about the individual—albeit, based on stereotypes.

 

Categories of bias: Racism, sexism, ageism, sexual orientation, nationalism, class-ism, religious discrimination, linguistic discrimination, and more.
Self-fulfilling Prophecy: An expectation held by a person about how another person will behave, which leads to treating the person according to our expectations.  The treatment can influence the person to act according to our stereotypic expectations, thus confirming the original stereotypic beliefs.  (Think teacher expectations, employer expectations, etc.)

 

Confirmation Bias: Paying more attention to information that is consistent with our stereotypic expectations than to information that is inconsistent with our expectations..

 

In-groups and Out-groups: An in-group is a group we see ourselves as belonging to, involving a strong sense of belonging and emotional connection that leads to in-group bias and preferences.  Out-groups are seen as different in fundamental ways, less likable, often resulting in discrimination.  When an in-group’s goals are delayed or thwarted, an out-group is often blamed.  This is scape-goating.
 
Bottom line for writers: stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination can define characters and situations.  Think thoughts, affects, and actions and how each can work with POV and plot.

 

Species-ism?

CHARACTERS’ ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOR


Attitude is a favorable or unfavorable reaction toward something or someone (often rooted in one’s beliefs and exhibited in one’s feelings and intended behavior).  It is tempting to assume that there is a direct line between these favorable or unfavorable reactions and behavior.  Good news for writers: people’s expressed attitudes seldom predict their actual behavior.  This is because an attitude includes both feeling and thinking, and both affect behavior.

 

I don’t FEEL wet. I THINK I’m walking on water. I must have an uplifting ATTITUDE!
Attitudes predict behavior when these conditions are present:
  • Social influences on what we say are minimal (little social pressure, fear of criticism).  For attitudes formed early in life (e.g., attitudes toward authority and fairness) explicit and implicit attitudes often diverge, with implicit being a stronger predictor.
I’m a good boy. I’m a good boy. I’m a… that treat is mine!
  • Other influences our behavior are minimal: situational constraints, health, weather, etc.
I’m supposed to stay in my cage, but that open window is right there…
  • Attitudes specific to the behavior are examined: e.g., expressed attitudes toward poetry don’t predict enjoying a particular poem, but attitudes toward the costs and benefits of jogging predict jogging behavior.
You’re getting up early tomorrow to go running. Sure. I totally believe you.
  • Attitudes are potent: stating an attitude and an intention to do something makes the attitude more potent and the behavior is more likely (recycling); asking people to think about their attitudes toward an issue also increases potency.
Someday, I WILL be taller than you.
  • Attitudes that are developed through direct experience are more accessible to memory, more enduring, and have a stronger effect on behavior.
Once a diva, always a diva.
Behavior affects attitudes when these conditions are present:
  • Actions prescribed by social roles mold the attitudes of the role players.  (Think prisoners and guards.)
  • What we say or write can strongly affect subsequent attitudes.  (Think being assigned a side in a debate.)
  • Doing a small act increases the likelihood of doing a larger one later.  (Think foot-in-the-door technique.)
  • Actions affect our moral attitudes.  We tend to justify whatever we do, even if it is evil.
  • We not only stand up for what we believe in, we believe in what we have stood up for.  (Think adopting a rescue animal or donating to a food drive.)
I adopted this pet hippo. You should adopt one too. All turtles should have a hippo companion.

The question of whether government should legislate behaviors to change attitudes on a massive scale is compounded by the question of whether it is even possible.

Every day, I come a little closer to my dream of being a balloon.
Why does our behavior affect our attitudes?
  • Self-Presentation Theory says people (especially those who self-monitor their behavior hoping to make a good impression) will adapt their attitude reports to appear consistent with their actions.  Some genuine attitude change usually accompanies efforts to make a good impression.
I meant to do that; I really wanted a lettuce hat.
  • Dissonance Theory explains attitude change by assuming we feel tension after acting contrary to our attitude or after making difficult decisions.  To reduce that arousal, we internally justify our behavior.  The less external justification we have for undesirable actions, the more we feel responsible for them, thus creating more dissonance and more attitude change.  (Think threat or reward.)
This color looks spectacular on me, and blue is a perfectly normal color for a sheep.
  • Self-Perception Theory assumes that when our attitudes are weak, we simply observe our behavior and its circumstances and infer our attitudes (correctly or incorrectly) rather than the other way around.  “How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?”  And conversely, rewarding people for doing something they like anyway can turn their pleasure into drudgery—the reward leading them to attribute their behavior to the reward rather than the enjoyment of the behavior itself.
I like grass because I have a lot of it.

Bottom line for writers: to present a character’s attitudes to the reader, write what they are doing, thinking, and/or feeling.  And note that each of these affects the other two and is affected in turn.  Dissonance among the these creates lots of opportunity for tension, conflict, and misunderstanding!

LIKING AND LOVING (PART 2)

 
In Friday’s blog, I outlined the factors that influence/promote liking:
  • Repeated exposure
  • Physical appearance
  • Similarity (the more similar two people are on a number of dimensions, the more their liking endures)
  • Reciprocal attraction
  • Relationships that offer more rewards than costs
Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of love
Surprise, surprise: these are the underpinnings of love as well!  And although liking and loving share roots, people seldom confuse the two.  The difference is largely a matter of degree: love is more intense than like.  It’s more personal and more important to one’s well-being.

 

Love comes in many guises. 
  • Love for dearest friends
  • Love for family, one’s children in particular
  • Romantic love

We use the word loosely and often.  We love chocolate, theater, gardening—whatever we feel strongly about.  But no one seriously confuses these feelings with love.

 

Sometimes chocolate is the foundation of love!

Although beloved friends and family are direct extensions of liking, romantic love is in a category largely by itself.

 

Eros, the embodiment of romantic love
A key ingredient of romantic love is arousal.  According to Psychologist Elaine Hatfield (1988, and not contradicted since), emotions have two ingredients: physical arousal plus cognitive appraisal.  Arousal from any source can enhance any emotion, depending on how we interpret the cause of the arousal.
Note for writers: at least part of the arousal from any source (fright, heavy duty workout, viewing erotica, listening to humorous or repulsive readings) will be attributed to a suitable object of affection.

 

Aztec goddess of love and beauty Xochiquetzal
Intense romantic love per se doesn’t last.  Romantic love reaches a fever pitch of obsession—infatuation, if you will—early on.  This is the period of constant calls, texts, letters (whatever fits the time period), exchanging love poems, giving personally meaningful gifts, etc..  For one thing, it gets exhausting!  But a case can be made that continued total focus on one’s partner/mate bodes ill for the well-being of any children they might have.

 

So, according to Professor Robert J Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, there are seven types of love, defined by the underlying factors of intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Gender effects in liking and loving.
  • Men focus more on physical attractiveness.  Although interested in appearance, women generally value their potential mate’s status/ financial security over physical beauty.  These findings hold cross-culturally and even when someone is seeking a same-sex partner.
  • Age also matters: men value youth more than women do.
  • Men are much more willing to engage in casual sex than women are, and their standards for sex partners are lower.

 

Gender differences in mate preferences may be accounted for by social norms and expectations.  The different socio-economic status of women and the level of gender equality within a society is also a factor in what attributes are prioritized when seeking a mate.

Margaret Mead, center

I’ll start with the Mating Gradient.  As long ago as the mid-1950s, Margaret Mead wrote about the propensity for couples in which the men were older, taller, smarter, better educated, higher earning, and of higher socio-economic status than the women.  Decades later, I conducted an experiment in which I had men and women respond to a hypothetical love relationship with either the traditional pattern (as outlined) or the opposite.

As expected, people in the traditional hypothetical relationships were comfortable and positive.
  • When men responded to a loved one who was two years older, two inches taller, better educated, higher earning, more intelligent, and higher socio-economic status, they were surprisingly okay with it!  A typical response was, “If a babe like that loves me, I must be pretty hot stuff!”
  • When women responded to a loved one who was lesser on all these dimensions, they were generally negative.  A typical response was, “I couldn’t respect a man like that.  How could I love him?”

One interpretation of all this is that, traditionally, women are supposed to be taken care of by their mates and men are (perhaps) threatened when of an inferior status.  But the upshot of men marrying down and women marrying up is that, overall, the least marriageable men are at the bottom of the heap while the most capable, successful women remain unmarried at the top.

 

The Sumerians were all equally shorter than the king.
Consider the implications of the traditional relationship.  Feeling constantly inferior leads to depression and feelings of inadequacy.  Feeling constantly superior leads to lack of respect and perhaps a power grab.

 

True friendship is built on equality of hat ridiculousness at Ascot.
There is research evidence that enduring relationships are based on equality.  So how can these things be reconciled?  One way would be for the man to be “superior” on at least one dimension while the woman is “superior” in one or more of the other areas.

 


And speaking of the relationship of respect to liking and loving: Zick Rubin introduced the concept back in the 1970s, published as Measurement of Romantic Love in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Rubin created scales to measure liking, loving, and lusting.  Each item was rated on a 5-point scale from “not at all true” to “very much true.”  Examples of these statements are below:
Liking scale items: I have great confidence in X’s judgment.  X is one of the most likable people I know.  I think that X and I are quite similar.  I think that X is unusually well-adjusted.

 

Mitra, an Indo-Iranian god of friendship
Loving Scale items: I would do almost anything for X.  If I could never be with X, I would feel miserable.  I feel responsible for X’s well-being.  When I am with X, I spend a good deal of time just looking at him/her.

 

Frigg, a Germanic goddess of marriage
Lust Scale items: I can’t stop thinking about having sex with X.  The best thing about X and my relationship is that we let our bodies do all the talking.  X’s attitudes and opinions don’t really matter in our relationship.  The best part of my relationship with X is the sexual chemistry.

 

Nanaya, a Mesopotamian goddess of sensual love

A fascinating finding (for me) in a study of engaged couples, was that women both liked and loved their partners.  Men loved their partners, but like—not so much.

 


We tend to like people more when we are in a good mood, and we like them less when we are in bad moods.  As partners stay together over time, cognition becomes relatively more important than passion.  Over time, close relationships are more likely to be based on companionate love than passionate love.
 
 
Bottom line for writersif you’re writing a love relationship, be clear on what kind of love it is!

 

by Chris Riggs in London

LIKING AND LOVING (PART 1)

 
Photo from Getty Images
Think about two people: a close friend and someone you are attracted to romantically.  How are these attractions alike and how are they different?

Both platonic and romantic love have been extensively studied by psychologists, including myself when I was earning my PhD in experimental social psychology.  Though there will likely always be more to explore, psychology has a huge breadth and depth of information available.  I’ll start with liking.  The information provided here is a summary drawn from Psychology (10th Ed.) by David G. Myers.
Caution: all of this research relies on group data; the behavior of individuals varies widely.

 

 

Proximity (geographic closeness) increases the likelihood of
  1. Meeting
  2. Interacting frequently
  3. The mere exposure effect: more frequent exposure to anything and virtually any person increases attraction: nonsense syllables, photographs, music, geometric figures, etc., etc., etc.

 

Kin-san and Gin-san, the oldest twins in the world (age 108)
Familiarity increases attraction 
  1. We prefer the mirror image of our faces to the one other people see.
  2. We prefer others who share some facial characteristics with us.
  3. We seem to be hard wired to bond with the familiar and be wary of those who are different.

 

An extraordinarily attractive Frigatebird from the Galapagos Islands
After familiarity, physical appearance is the  most important factor in attraction 
  1.  Physical appearance matters to both men and women, although women more likely to say it doesn’t.
  2. Physical appearance predicts how often people date and (no surprise here) how popular they feel.

 

xkcd knows how to make a good impression
Attractiveness affects how positive a first impression is
  1. Good looking people are perceived as healthier, happier, more sensitive, more successful, and more socially skilled
  2. Attractive, well-dressed people make a better impression in job interviews
  3. Attractive people tend to be more successful in their jobs: income analyses show a penalty for plainness and/or obesity
  4. In a study of the 100 top-grossing films since 1940, attractive characters were portrayed as morally superior to unattractive characters
  5. Based on gazing times, even babies prefer attractive faces to unattractive ones

 

 

Artwork by blogger Holytape
But there are limits to the attractiveness effect 
  1. Attractiveness does not affect how compassionate we think someone is.
  2. Physical attractiveness is statistically unrelated to self-esteem
  3. Attractiveness is unrelated to happiness
  4. People generally don’t view themselves as unattractive
  5. Attractive people are more suspicious of praise for work performance; less attractive people more likely to accept praise as sincere

 

Culture and beauty
  1. Beauty is culture bound: think piercings, tattoos, elongated necks, bound feet, dyed or painted skin and hair, ideal weight; body hair, breast size
  2. Cultural ideals change over time; for example, consider the feminine ideal in the U.S.: 1920s was super thin and flat chested; 1950s, the lush Marilyn Monroe look; currently, it’s lean but busty
  3. Those who don’t fit the ideal often try to buy beauty: Americans now spend more on beauty supplies than on education and social services combined, not to mention plastic surgery, teeth capping and whitening, Botox skin smoothing, or laser hair removal

 

Tibetan, Cambodian, and Bulgarian bridal costumes as drawn by Aakansh Pushp
Cross-cultural beauty 
  1. Men in many cultures judge women as more attractive if they have a youthful, fertile appearance (the latter suggested by a low waist to hip ratio).
  2. Women are attracted to healthy-looking men.  When ovulating, women are more attracted to men who seem mature, dominant, masculine, and affluent.
  3. People everywhere prefer physical features that are “normal”—i.e., not too big, too small.  Average is attractive.
  4. People prefer symmetrical faces—even though virtually no one actually has one.
  5. Across cultures, women are 2-18% more likely than men to say they “Constantly think about their looks.”
  6. Women have 91% of all cosmetic procedures.
  7. Women recall others’ appearance better than men do.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch and Sophie Hunter are not actually siblings
Similarity is greater among friends/partners compared to randomly matched pairs 
  1. Common attitudes
  2. Beliefs
  3. Values
  4. Interests
  5. Age
  6. Religion
  7. Race
  8. Education
  9. Intelligence
  10. Smoking behavior
  11. Economic status
  12. Opposites virtually never attract
  13. The more alike people are, the more their liking endures: similarity breeds content.

 

 

People like people who like them 
  1. True for initial attraction
  2. Self-fulfilling loop: A likes B, who responds positively, making A like B more, etc.
  3. Especially true for people with low self-esteem
  4. The effect is enhanced when someone moves from disliking to liking us

 

Atoms are also attracted to other atoms that reward their behavior
The reward theory of attraction: we like people whose behavior is rewarding to us, and we continue relationships that offer more rewards than costs.

 

 

BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: if you want to write a realistic relationship, follow the principles above.  If you choose to go against the norm, take care to make it believable to the reader.

LIES, LIES, AND MORE LIES

Are you sure I can believe you?
When someone says something that isn’t true, it’s a lie—except when it isn’t!  For writers, any untruth can be a tool for building character, plot, tone, etc.  I can think of three situations when an untruth isn’t a lie.

1) The person telling the untruth is incapable of discerning what the truth is.  Very young children will often lie because there is no real difference between fantasy and reality in their mind.  The cardboard box really did become a rocket ship.  A mermaid and a kracken really did come to play in the bathtub.

Depending on the age of the child, this may extend to what seems to adults to be attempts to get out of trouble or deflect blame.  Because a child’s sense of reality is not concrete, what an adult sees as a lie a child may simply see as very effective wishful thinking.

Grandmom said I can play with power tools!

Children may also respond with the first answer to come into their mind that they think an adult wants to hear.  This is true both for extremely young children who simply try to give an answer they think the adult wants to hear and for children who have trouble concentrating or remembering, such as those with ADD or ADHD.

Of course I took a bath!
Dr. Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, sees lying as an indicator of developmental status.  I’ll skip the research methodology and simply cite the findings.  When asked whether they had peeked behind a screen: of those who had peeked, 30% of two-year-olds, 50% of three-year olds, and about 80% of eight-year-olds lied about it.
I saw everything!

2) The person telling the untruth suffers some form of dementia.  For example, an obvious case would be a woman in a memory care facility who tells visiting relatives that she baked a chocolate cake and everyone at the party said how good it was, and Paul Newman came in through the window and danced with her.

 

Another version, often harder to detect, is the person who has temporal confusion.  For example, a man who says that his son came to see him yesterday and it was actually last week.  (Think false alibi!)
 white text

3) The speaker believes something is true that isn’t. In other words, the speaker is mistaken.  It could be a misunderstanding of something seen, read or heard—but it could also be that the speaker was intentionally deceived so that s/he would spread a lie.

Which brings us to real lies as opposed to untruths: to make an untrue statement with the intention to deceive.  But writers, go beyond the direct lie and use, half-truths, exaggerations, or pertinent omissions.

 

Not a rare behavior for people or characters.  Indeed, Kendra Cherry writing on verywellmind.com pointed out that actual research about lying is relatively recent, and data replications are hard to come by, but some surveys suggest that as many as 96% of people admit to lying at least sometimes.

In 1996, Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, published the results of a study in which 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71 kept a diary of all the falsehoods they told over the course of a week.  She found that most people lie at least once or twice every day!  Over the course of a week, people lied in approximately 20% of social interactions lasting 10 minutes or more.  They deceived about 30% of those they interacted with one-on-one.

 

Although she didn’t find gender differences in number of lies, there were relationship differences.  Parents and teens interactions are often deceitful: “College students lie to their mothers in one out of two conversations.”

Little white lies.  These lies are typically meant to do some good—or at least do no harm.  For example, complimenting a friend’s shirt when you really think it looks dreadful.  Coming late to a meeting and saying you were held up by an accident on the interstate when you really overslept.

 

Although pretty much everyone is told from a young age that it’s always best to tell the truth, the fact is that telling the truth (about oversleeping, for example) may be punished (for example, by a poor performance review).  Thus, society often encourages or even rewards lying.

Illustration by Boyd Wilcox
Some lies may serve as a social lubricant.  DePaulo (above) found that 25% of lies were “fake positives” intending to make the other person feel better about someone or something.  These were 10 to 20 times more common than lies in which people pretend to like someone or something less than they actually do (fake negatives).

 

But beware: according to Wanda Thibodeaux on Inc.com, telling lies to spare someone’s feelings is not good in the long run.  Yes, we do take the liar’s intention into account, but it also raises doubts about whether a person willing to lie to us actually has our best interests at heart.  These lies can cause doubt, uncertainty, suspicion, and trust  issues.

White lies made up to excuse being late, unprepared, unwilling to do something, etc. bring into question a character’s ultimate trustworthiness.

 

Also, telling little white lies can desensitize the liar, making it easier to tell bigger/more serious lies.

 

People lie for the same reason they do everything else: a lie is the best perceived alternative at the time.  Thus, lies are a means to an end, and those ends can be broadly grouped into four overlapping categories; to get what they want, to take the easy way out, to avoid criticism, to build a positive self-image.  The likelihood of lying increases when someone is “pushed into a corner” or needs to react quickly.

 

1) To get what they want.  This could be almost anything.  In relationships, it might be to attract a partner, to hide cheating, to get a partner to agree to sex, to avoid an argument—and these are just a few possibilities.

 

In the workplace, lying to get ahead, discredit the competition, get even with a colleague, take credit for someone else’s work, cover up procrastination, avoid being fired, etc.

Mr. Fluffers does not tolerate tardiness.

In any relationship, people lie for quick financial gain, to avoid taking responsibility or unwanted chores, to be liked/popular, or nearly any other objective that the liar sees as more important (at the moment) than the truth.

2) To take the easy way out.  This overlaps with the good Little White Lies above, not wanting to deal with hurt feelings, for example.  It also includes plagiarizing and making up data in a research project.

 

Fixed it!
3) To avoid criticism.  When people aren’t comfortable with some aspect of their behavior, character, or past they are prone to deceive in any of the ways mentioned above (lie, half-truths, exaggerations, intentional omissions).  Closely related to inflate one’s image, to cover up for a mistake, or to excuse doing something wrong.

 

4) To build a positive self-image.  Basically, this is lying to oneself.  The liar wants something to be true and pretends that it is until eventually s/he believes it.  Making excuses for behavior or thoughts or wishes that at some level are unacceptable to the self.

 

Other reasons people lie
  • One lie has led to another, especially good for writers. (Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.—Walter Scott)
  • To be malicious and hurt other people
  • To take control of a situation
  • To hide a disorder such as an eating disorder, compulsive gambling, alcoholism, etc., which goes beyond avoiding criticism
  • It is integral to certain occupations
Pathological lying.  A person who feels compelled to lie, and will do so with no apparent benefit to self or others is a pathological liar.  This is often part of a diagnosis of a mental health disorder:
  • Antisocial personality/sociopathy (no regard for right or wrong, no remorse, often become criminals)
  • Borderline personality (varying moods and behavior, often impulsive, conducive to unstable relationships)
  • Histrionic personality (exaggerated emotions, demanding attention seeking behavior)
  • Factitious disorders (acting as if s/he has a physical or mental illness but does not)
The severity and frequency of lying, and the reasons for lying are what point to a psychological problem.

 

How to tell when someone is lying.  (As summarized by Kendra Cherry, above.)
 
Folk wisdom is wrong.  It says that liars tend to fidget, squirm, avoid eye contact or have shifty eyes when lying.  Research indicates that these are virtually useless as indicators.  (Looking away, for example, is more likely to indicate the person is trying to access long term memory.)

 

Some of the most accurate (although still weak) indicators of lying:
  • Being vague, offering few details
  • Repeating questions before answering them
  • Speaking in sentence fragments
  • Failing to provide specific details when a story is challenged
  • Grooming behavior, such as playing with hair or pressing fingers to lips
More active ways to uncover lies
  1. Ask the person to tell the story in reverse.  Increasing the mental load makes lying more difficult—although telling a lie is more mentally taxing than telling the truth anyway.
  2. Trust your instincts.  We may have an unconscious, intuitive response to lying that gets drowned out if we spend too much time focusing on the non-verbals stereotypically associated with lying.
Consider an individual’s tells
Successful card players learn to hide when they are bluffing and to identify what the other players do when they have good or bad hands.  The same might be true for your characters.  Does she blush?  Does he stutter?  Does he rub  his chin?  Does she bounce her knee?  Does your character have a poker face?  And if so, is s/he on the side of good or evil (so to speak).

 

If your burger keeps walking away, that could be a sign that it is a liar. And not a burger.
Bonus info about lying
  • The closer the liar is to the deceived, the more likely the lies are to be an altruistic (fake positive) one
  • Women are especially likely to stretch the truth to spare someone’s feelings
  • Men are more prone to lying about themselves: conversations between two guys contain about eight times as many self-oriented lies as they do falsehoods about other people

Bottom line for writers:
  • Lying is rampant, so there ought to be at least a little of it in your story
  • Lying can abet virtually any goal
  • Lies can be of virtually any size or seriousness
  • Pay attention to age, relationship, and gender differences