The power of lying     

The power of lying     

Almost all patients tell some lies while in therapy, wrote Drs. Blanchard and Love in their book, Secrets and Lies in Psychotherapy. Lying is not just common, it’s also ubiquitous… it’s inevitable in psychotherapy, noted Dr. Farber, a professor in the clinical psychology at Columbia University.


A client has the right to lie all he wants to his therapists in spite of the fact that honest disclosure is at the heart of all psychotherapy; but if someone feels like he needs to lie, that may also be important, according to Dr. Blanchard, a clinical psychologist at New York University.

To a psychotherapy client, the importance  may be based on “distress minimization,” or acting happier than one actually feels, to not wanting to upset the therapist or be seen as a complainer, or to protecting himself from a painful realization of how bad things may actually be, again according to Dr. Blanchard.

Does this mean that when a client lies to a therapist, one lies only to himself?  The content of one’s lie is insignificant to everybody else except to himself whatever is the content or purpose of the lie. The act of lying changes nobody but himself. The ponderous effect is only burdened upon him.

Would the same principle apply when the same psychotherapy client lies to people, caveat publicly?




The rub is, when a client or anyone, especially someone with of higher-status, prevaricating to others bears pitfalls; The dangerous thing about lying is, people don’t understand how the act changes us, according to Dr. Ariely, a behavioral psychologist at Duke.

Most of us resent any suggestion that external influences determine our behavior; we see ourselves as free beings, as the originators of our own actions. Yet, are we truly free beings uninfluenced by a seemingly ethereal but insidious force, like a lie?

One study documented children lying as early as age two, suggesting lying is a developmental milestone requiring sophisticated planning, attention and the ability to see a situation from someone else’s perspective, again according to Dr. Ariely. But for most people, lying gets mitigated as we develop a sense of morality and the ability to self-control.


We are, however, reminded that we are born amoral; our sense of morality we learned from the world is recursively anchored on the myriad predisposing elements in our brain. Yet, If you give people multiple opportunities to lie for their own benefit, they start with little lies that get bigger and bigger over time, stated Dr. Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London.  What then constitutes a lie?

‘Consciousness of falsity’


Lying occurs when a communicator wittingly intends to mislead others as contextualized in the oft-quoted notion by Dr. S. Bok — the moral question of whether you are lying or not is not settled by establishing the truth or falsity of what you say. In order to settle this question, we must know whether you intend your statement to mislead.

Thus, it is not sufficient that something is false for it to be a lie; it is the intent that distinguishes the lie, according to Ford, King, and Hollender in their study, Lies and liars: Psychiatric aspects of prevarication.

We are our own judges about our own honesty and that internal judge is what differentiates psychopaths and non-psychopaths, again according to Dr. Ariely.  Akin in context, Ford, et al. suggested the ‘‘consciousness of falsity’’ in their study as to distinguish ‘‘normal’’ lies from pathological ones.

“Normal” is often thought of as a misnomer in psychology and is difficult to define; but “pathological” is that that persistent, compulsive tendency to tell lies out of proportion to any apparent achievable advantage. It is most common among individuals with personality disorder, who do not seem to understand the nature of a falsehood.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines pathological lying as a clinical syndrome characterized by elaborate fabrications, usually concocted to impress others, to get out of an awkward situation, or to give the individual an ego boost. Unlike the fictions of confabulation, these fantasies are believed only momentarily and are dropped as soon as they are contradicted by evidence.

Typical examples are the tall tales told or acted out by people with antisocial personality disorder, histrionic, narcissistic, borderline, and compulsive personalities although the syndrome is also found among malingerers and individuals with factitious disorders, neuroses, and psychoses, so we are told.


Dr. Langleben, a pioneer in lie detection study, contended that it is possible that lying is essentially harder than telling the truth, because to lie does not involve any impulse control: One had to have good impulse control to lie; otherwise the truth comes out first.

The key point is that we need to exercise a system that is in charge of regulating and controlling our behaviors when we lie more than when we just say the truth, again according to Dr. Langleben who also pioneered employing functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) in his deception study.

Three areas of the brain generally become more active during deception: the anterior cingulated cortex (monitor errors), the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (control behavior) and the parietal cortex (process sensory input). When the fMRI scans show more blood is flowing in these areas of the brain; this indicate that all sections are functioning solidly.

Integrating, and then analyzing fMRI pictures, Dr. Langleben concluded that lying increased blood flow in these key areas of the brain. Blood flow equates to lying, inferring lies are not created out of thin air. Dr. Langleben’s study suggested that the brain has to think of the truth, and then make a decision, which in a sense, does the opposite.

This was demonstrated in a study when an experimental cohort was instructed to express (lie) “the sky is green.” Dr. Langleben proposed that the cohort’s brain first thought about the typical color of the sky, which is generally blue before he decided to express the falsehood. That thought process was calculated by the fMRI scan.



Lying has long been a part of everyday life. We could not get through the day without being deceptive. Yet, until recently, lying was almost entirely ignored by psychologists, leaving scientific discussion to ethicists and theologians, according to Dr. Saxe, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University.

Freud wrote next to nothing about deception; even the 1,500-page Encyclopedia of Psychology, published in 1984, mentioned lies only in a brief entry. However, as we delve deeper into the studies of deception, we are apt to recognize lying is a surprisingly common but complex phenomenon.

New breeds of “physiologic detectors” are emerging, prompted by the more sensitive brain-imaging techniques, reawakening interest in lie detection as demonstrated by the advent of new instruments such as the, Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS), thermal imaging, fMRI, and the Brain Fingerprinting technologies.

In spite of technological development, self-report data for the U.S. adult population indicate the average rate of lying is around 1.65 lies per day. On any given day, the majority of lies are told by a small portion of the population, where nearly 6 out of 10 Americans claim to have told no lies at all, suggested in a study by Serota, et al. of Michigan University.

Finally, according to the physicist Niels Bohr, “There are trivial truths and great truths.  The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.”

Refute that with your alternative truth.

Dr. Carson-Arenas is a Certified Clinical Psychology Specialist, and a former university research director. He is a Behavior Analyst Specialist in Nevada, an educator, clinician, researcher, consultant, and a published author. Dr. Carson-Arenas together with his daughter Abbygale Williamson Arenas-de Leon recently launched  the book, “You’re Okay, I Am Perfect (How teens and adolescents & those in between quest for identity)” available on Amazon. Please e-mail at: [email protected].

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TAGS: alternative truth, lying, psychology of deception
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