Why do people lie? And why do other people believe them?
When a child is young, it will naturally tell the truth. Most usually, it starts to learn to lie (consciously or unconsciously) when it discovers that it is not believed when it tells the truth or it is blamed and punished for telling the truth (particularly if the truth is unpalatable to a parent or other adult). In these circumstances, lying might occur in an attempt to be believed or in an attempt to avoid blame and punishment and the lie might take the form of the child fearfully telling the parent what the child knows the parent wants to hear.
Why does this happen? Because a child is genetically programmed to behave functionally (evolution had to get this right or individuals and species would not survive infancy), it would always tell the truth. But if it is not believed then the child must 'learn' to devise strategies, including lying, to be believed. This might start as a fearfully conscious response but it will probably become increasingly unconscious and automated as it learns what is "expected." If the child is blamed and/or punished for telling an unpalatable truth then, again, it must "learn" to devise strategies, including lying, to avoid blame and punishment. Given that many social institutions routinely require behaviors that evolution did not intend and which are not functional (for example, sitting in a school classroom all day), the child will be progressively dysfunctionalized in a variety of ways, including ones that scare it out of telling the truth about how it feels and what it needs (as it would otherwise do naturally).
By the time the typical child has reached adolescence, it will live in a world of considerable delusion about itself, other people and the world in general. In these circumstances, the emerging adult will now lie unconsciously, primarily in order to maintain its delusions about itself and the complementary delusions it has about others and the world. This is why most politicians lie. But they are not alone.
For example, a mother will want to maintain a sense of herself as "a good mother" (however dysfunctionalized or violent she is) and if one or more of her children decide to challenge her dysfunctional/violent behaviors or even to discontinue their relationship with her, then, rather than acknowledge her dysfunctional/violent behaviors and accept responsibility for dealing with these (which would require her to have the courage to feel the suppressed fear, pain, anger, sadness and other feelings that drive her dysfunctionalities and violence), she is most likely to reinforce her own delusions about herself by lying about herself and her child, including about the reasons her child no longer wants to have a relationship with her.
But much of her lying will be unconscious because, to lie consciously would mean that she could acknowledge (at least to herself) her dysfunctional/violent behaviors and, perhaps, accept responsibility for dealing with these.
However, of course, this almost invariably does not happen precisely because of her fear (based on her own childhood experience) of being blamed and punished for making, and acknowledging, "mistakes." It is far less frightening to fearfully lie (and act accordingly) than to acknowledge her delusion about herself and to accept responsibility for her dysfunctional and violent behaviors.
So why do most people believe lies? Each child is born with a predisposition to believe the adults in its life. This is evolutionarily functional because childhood survival depends on adult care. But the child is also born with the potential to develop a "truth register"-- the mental function, related to anger, that enables it to detect lies. Unfortunately, the truth register, like all potential capacities, is a subtle and easily damaged mental function and if a child is lied to chronically by a parent or other significant adult during its childhood, the truth register will either not develop or it will be weakened to such an extent that it will no longer readily detect lies.
A person who has been lied to chronically will develop gullibility that is obvious to those with a developed truth register but even the gullibility of others will be obscure to those with an undeveloped or weakened truth register of their own.
What can we do about lying? Just four things will fix this chronic problem: always tell the truth fearlessly yourself, always believe children, always take affirmative action in response to the child's truth, and never punish anyone (including whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden) for telling the truth.
Robert is the author of Why Violence?
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