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Some Small Truths About Brian Williams' Big Lie

While Mr. Williams' didn't really do anything differently than what we apparently all do every day, his cultural standing amplifies his indiscretion, making his actions seemingly all the more egregious.
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The recent controversy swirling around NBC News anchor Brian Williams prompts a larger question about our motivations for deceiving one another. In examining that question, what's most surprising is not simply that we lie, but how often and to what end.

Contrary to what we might expect, rather than something out of the ordinary, lying is a part of everyday social interaction. A study by Bella DePaulo, et. al, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that individuals lie in one out of five daily interactions. (1) Another study, published by Kim Serota et. al in Human Communication Research, reported that, within their sample, the average number of daily lies was 1.65, with no statistically significant difference evident between men and women. (3) This litany of research is seemingly endless and brings us to a singular, overarching conclusion: we all lie in some form or fashion, and pretty regularly. It also raises the broader question of what motivates our apparently universal tendency to deceive.

What takes Mr. Williams' transgression out of the realm of the everyday and into the epic is a matter of perception. No one likes to be lied to and the degree of betrayal we assign to a lie is directly proportional to the trust we place in the person telling it. While Mr. Williams' didn't really do anything differently than what we apparently all do every day, his cultural standing amplifies his indiscretion, making his actions seemingly all the more egregious.

Reasons for why we lie abound, but evidence suggests that our overall intention revolves around shaping perceptions and managing outcomes. The reason we do this is quite simple: to keep society running smoothly. Our little white lies and sins of omission actually facilitate the quality of social interaction, deflecting conflict and promoting goodwill. Those more inclined to lie are not only happier, but perceived as both friendlier and more amiable than individuals who are more truthful.

There is also some indication that exaggeration can have a positive psychological impact. A 2009 study found that students who exaggerated their GPA later demonstrated improved grades. (4) Their deception became self-fulfilling because, according to the researchers, those who exaggerate are more confident and set higher goals.

Close consideration of lying styles reveals that there is a certain amount of overlap among them. Some are sensible -- even reasonable, within a certain latitude of moral relativism -- and some rather insensible. One in particular, and this circles us back to Mr. Williams' dilemma, stands out as somewhat less understandable than the rest.

Avoiding consequences -- one of the most obvious reasons for us to lie is to avoid some consequence. The problem with this strategy is that, once the lie is revealed, the consequences of that choice are typically more damaging than the initial situation. Take, for example, a teenage girl who fails to tell her parents she got a speeding ticket. As the clock ticks, what was likely a $50 ticket and a brief conversation about driving safety evolves into a $150 dollar fine and an unfortunate encounter with the court system.

Avoiding loss -- sometimes we lie because we are clinging to a misperception that, if the truth were out, we would lose something, like the respect of our significant other, or an opportunity at work. Very often, this kind of deception can be tied to a sense of shame or unworthiness that derives from what has euphemistically been called the imposter syndrome. We operate under the assumption that, if the truth is out, we will be found out, so we paint a picture that, in our minds, makes us more socially palatable.

Protecting someone -- lying to protect someone is less about keeping that person out of trouble and more about managing emotions. If, for example, we know that our partner is sensitive to chaos, we might lie about having paid a bill to keep her from getting upset. The disconnect here is in our failure to recognize that simply admitting the bill has yet to be paid would engender considerably less conflict than the lie told to avoid it.

Protecting ourselves -- our minor social deceptions are frequently in service of saving face and shaping the perceptions of others. Sometimes our sense of being overly vulnerable prompts us to downplay our emotions, or put up a false front. Again, this might be tied to a sense of insecurity or a lack of personal value that prevents of from expressing what we really want or need.

Power and control -- very often we will lie to control the outcome of a situation. This is, in part, fed by the cognitive bias defined by Ellen Langer as the illusion of control, where we overestimate our ability to control events. In point of fact, we can't really control anything, least of all other people. (2) Despite this somewhat obvious circumstance, we are, nevertheless, inclined to try and shape a situation to achieve some desired outcome.

Sins of omission -- probably the most common kind of deception is leaving out a minor detail that has the potential to completely change the complexion of a situation. If, for example, we have a sense that our boss thinks we aren't pulling our weight, we might respond positively about having just gotten off the phone with a client when questioned, all the while failing to note the client was calling about a missed deadline. The picture we paint is one of attentiveness, when, in fact, we are perceived as being quite the opposite.

Self-aggrandizement -- embellishing to make ourselves look better is a bit more subtle than other deceptions because the immediate social payoff is less evident. When we lie to avoid consequences or control a situation, we get instant feedback. Lying to enhance other's perception of us does, in fact, fall into the category of shaping perception, but it is less immediate and, therefore, speaks less to the moment and more to character. This, along with that proportional relationship between trust and betrayal, is what, in part, has us staking out Mr. Williams as this month's sacrificial lamb.

Bad behavior does not make for bad people. What we need to consider -- not only in the case of Mr. Williams, but in all cases where we exercise judgment -- is the lens through which we are filtering our perceptions. If almost every scrap of evidence suggests that -- barring pathology -- we all lie and a lot, there is just no way for us to cast the first stone. If the vast majority of us don't really differentiate between a white lie and a really big one, there is, again, really no legitimate means for us to parse not paying the cable bill on time and facing down an RPG.

Given all this, in terms of our perceptual lens we, in fairness, have to consider the conditions of the lie. Is Mr. Williams any more or less trustworthy than anyone else we encounter? Probably not. Has his cultural standing influenced the way we perceive the magnitude of his transgression? Probably. Should we trust Brian Williams again -- not the cultural icon or the commentator, but the man? Probably no more or less than the person looking back at you in the mirror every morning.

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1. DePaulo, B.; Kashy, D.; Kirkendol, S.; Wyer, M.; Epstein, J. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(5), 979-995.
2. Langer, E.; Roth, J. (1975). Heads I win, tails it's chance: The illusion of control as a function of the sequence of outcomes in a purely chance task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(6), 951-955.
3. Serota, K.; Levine, T.; Boster, F. (2010). The prevalence of lying in America: Three studies of self-reported lies. Human Communication Research, 36(1), 2-25.
4. Willard, G., & Gramzow, R. (2009). Beyond oversights, lies, and pies in the sky: Exaggeration as goal projection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 477-492.