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The Art of Deception


Each day, we are lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times. Strangers lie 3 times within the first 10 minutes of meeting one another, and average married couples lie in 1 out of every 10 interactions, according to Pamela Meyer, author of the book Liespotting. Each and every one of us is a liar, but at what point does mundane lying become not just a science, but an art of deception? And at what point does a white lie to save face become an act of criminality?

The dictionary definition of art is “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” Effective deception arguably involves “skill and imagination” in the “creation of experiences that can be shared with others,” even if these “shared experiences” are not favorable to the person or group of people being lied to. Deception can also be compared to the less traditional definition of “art”, which the dictionary states is “a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice.” Deception can difficult to detect, as it comes in the form of subtle verbal and body language cues; for example, the use of more formal language, increased pitch, or dilated pupils.

Despite that fact, lying is now becoming more easily detectable, as the science of lie spotting has rapidly evolved and technology now exists to expose someone who may be lying. Fox network recently aired a show called Lie To Me, in which Dr. Cal Lightman helps law enforcement and government agencies uncover the truth, through his remarkable lie detection research. Aside from the science of lie spotting, it is also very easy to become caught in a web of lies; therefore, the higher the stakes, the more a liar must practice their art.

Now let’s examine lying through a criminal lens, both morally and legally. First let us define deceptive communication and its qualifications. Deceptive communication occurs when a speaker transmits information knowingly and intentionally for the purpose of creating a false belief in the receiver. To qualify as deception, the sender must know the information is false, the sender must be transmitting the information on purpose, and the sender must be attempting to make the receiver believe the information. Intuitively, this sounds rather unethical, although there are many reasons as to why a person may lie, some of which are morally justifiable. Firstly, deception is a common component of politeness. Whether the feeling is genuine or not, the intention may be to either avoid hurting someone or to make someone feel appreciated. Unedited honesty is often considered to be highly impolite in Western culture. Secondly, deception can be a social lubricant and help maintain social harmony; for instance, to avoid conflict or to help a person get to know someone. Other reasons for lying include the protection of privacy, to save face or make oneself look better, to avoid punishment, or to amuse oneself.

Some kinds of lies are more or less acceptable. Lying for the protection of oneself or for the protection of someone else can be seen as a “moral lie”. When people hiding Jews during the Holocaust would lie to the Nazi’s as to the Jews’ whereabouts, was this not a moral lie? Or perhaps a person lies to their rapist about having HIV. Is this not considered a moral lie as well? When, you might ask, does lying become morally criminal? A lie can be considered morally criminal when it brings harm to other people; for example, lying to get revenge on someone.

When evaluating the legalities of deception, it is important to consider the stakes. Some lies are “low-stakes” lies, in which the penalties involve temporary emotional discomfort, like embarrassment. This could be someone lying about plans to get out of an undesirable social commitment, someone saying that he or she is happy to meet someone when he or she is not, or falsely complimenting someone’s appearance. “High-stake” lies are typically when deception becomes a legal issue, and therefore, a criminal issue as well. “High-stake” lies are lies in which penalties for getting caught are severe. This includes, but is not limited to, forging a signature, impersonating a licensed professional, engaging in insider trading, misrepresenting income on tax returns, filing false insurance claims, committing perjury, etc.

Lying can cost us billions, as Meyer reveals that last year saw $997 billion in cooperate fraud alone in us. That’s 7 percent of revenues. Swindlers such as Bernie Madoff—former stockbroker and investment advisor who operated a Ponzi scheme—and Henry Oberlander—a conman so successful that he almost undermined the entire banking system of the Western world—demonstate that lies can compromise security, threaten democracy, and potentially cause death of those who defend us.

The art of deception is not an art form that we particularly want to promote. Lying is a cooperative act, yet if we are better able detect deception, we are better able to prevent it. Detecting deception is difficult, yet there are subtle red flags that we can look for. These red flags include information inconsistency, pupil dilation, increased speech errors, vocal pitch blinking, and use of false smiles, and decreased body movement. Liars will often become over-determined in their denials and engage in formal and distancing language. Bill Clinton exemplifies this when we stated that he “did not (formal language) have sexual relations with that woman (distanced pronoun). Lastly, when a hidden emotion is masked by the presented emotion, leaks may occur; such as duping delight, which describes a slight, quick smile that reveals the pleasure one has when getting away with a lie. With all of these tips for lie detection, we can hopefully minimize harm caused by criminal liars who believe they have mastered the art.

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