Dealing with Deception in Counselling
“You should always believe your clients,” said the counselling-training professor to the trainees, “and you should always disbelieve them”
It’s possible that that advice — confusing and impossible as it seems to be — is useful not only for therapists listening to clients, but to any of us listening to a fellow human being. Even cursory examination of the literature about deception reveals a hornet’s nest of apparent contradictions and myriad contexts in which attempts at deceiving us fail or succeed. Hence, we read, “Trust is the bedrock of social life at all levels, from romance and parenting to national government and international treaties. Deception always undermines it” (Psychology Today, 2019). And we also find, “Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at. We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends, and loved ones” (Bhattacharjee, 2017).
As everyday examples of the last assertion, note these all-too-common fibs:
“I’m late because traffic was diabolical!”
“No, your bottom doesn’t look big in that dress.”
“Of course, I’m delighted to have your mother come stay with us for three months.”
“I don’t need help; my partner only hits me when he’s been drinking.”
These, of course, are interpersonal remarks; mostly, they don’t even treat the question of self-deception, which is another layer of “lying” altogether! The first article in this series acknowledged that, as little as we might like to admit it, engaging in deception can have cognitive, emotional, and social benefits. Today we look at what the types of deception are, see how deception creates relational fallout, and examine the question of gullibility: that is, are we hardwired to be suspicious, or to trust, and how might habitual lying change things?
Types of deception
We can note that deception “refers to the act — big or small, cruel or kind — of causing someone to believe something that is untrue”. The blurb goes on to claim that various studies show that the average person lies several times a day (Psychology Today, 2019). That said, not all lies are created equal, as a fib to avoid hurting someone’s feelings (e.g., “Your speech was great”) is regarded by most as being in a vastly different category from a serious lie, such as “I didn’t kill the hitchhiker”. Several frameworks for categorising falsehoods exist, and they entertain distinctions such as whether the deception involved commission or omission, whether it was a small fib or a large lie (related to how morally egregious it was), whether there was some truth involved (e.g., half-truths and distortions versus out-and-out lies), how much the lie affected the relationships involved, and whether the individual intended to deceive or not.
For simplicity, let’s consider the six types examined in a study of 80 romantically involved male and female Australian university students, who read and responded to scenarios depicting men and women perpetrating deceit in couple relationships. The research studied (1) omission; (2) distortion; (3) half-truths; (4) blatant lies; (5) white lies; and (6) failed lies. Respondents rated their own and their partner’s use of each type of deception in terms of frequency, morality, and relationship effects. The researchers also asked the subjects to rate how satisfied they were with the couple relationship.
Results showed that each type of deception apart from the white lie was judged as “morally reprehensible” on dimensions of guilt, blame, and dishonesty. Not surprisingly, the respondents used white lies most often, and blatant lies least often; they also perceived their partners as behaving similarly. When respondents perceived their partners as frequently using blatant lying, partial truths, and attempted deceit (i.e., failed lies), relationship satisfaction was diminished. Interestingly, frequent use of deception was correlated with believing that each type of deception was better than having an argument, supporting previous research that some couples engage in deception as a method of conflict avoidance (Peterson, 1996).
Deception in relationships: What’s the impact?
But does it work? Does lying in order to avoid conflict actually help a relationship, or are there negative, unintended consequences? Psychologists have pegged a few key ways in which deception damages — and may even destroy — relationships, especially intimate ones. Unfortunately, we are able to identify a cycle in which falsehoods — along with the relationship — get worse as the cycle deepens.
Lies destroy trust
Possibly the most noticeable effect that deception has on a relationship is the washing-away of trust; trust cannot co-exist with falsehood; it crumbles. Given that trust is normally one of the pillars of relationship, the collapse of the entire relational structure is likely to follow. This may be especially true in that, once a person has told us an untruth, we naturally expect that he or she will do it again. Thus, staying in the relationship means enduring the stress of wondering not if, but when the person will tell the next lie (A Conscious Rethink, 2019).
Lies block real intimacy through lack of respect and selfishness
Few relationship experts would disagree that the authenticity which allows genuine intimacy in relationships is based on a foundation of respect. Acts of deception are essentially acts which show disrespect to the deceived person. Beyond that, true intimacy must have a reasonable measure of concern for the other person, a sense of being able to act for the other’s best interest. Falsehoods, distortions, and lies run counter to that; they are behaviours enacted for the gain of the deceiver, not the deceived. Such selfishness cannot engender closeness (Lancer, 2018).
Deception sets up a destructive (regressive) maintaining cycle
If the above were not powerful enough means by which deception destroys a relationship, we have to consider the lethality of the typical cycle that gets going when deception invades a relationship. Have a look at the deepening cycle of deception (below) to understand the tragic sequence of psychological events which unfold with the first lie.
The individual engages the first deception, but once falsehood has entered a relationship, it usually cannot stop there. Further lies and hard-to-remember omissions are required to cover up for the first lie (hence the saying, “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”). Unlike sociopaths, most of us understand honesty as a moral norm, so when we violate it, we feel guilty. Continued violations (which are usually necessary, as noted, for purposes of cover-up) engender an enduring sense of shame. Our self-concept takes a hit. Feeling bad about ourselves puts us into a bad mood, engendering resentment, irritability, and aggressive impulses. We want to withdraw when around the person with whom we said we wanted the close relationship, because being with them when we are deceiving them is awkward and uncomfortable in intimate moments.
Naturally the other person notices the change in our behaviour and has a multitude of reactions to the avoidant behaviour. Among them are feelings of being confused, anxious, angry, suspicious, abandoned, or needy. This victim of the deception may begin to doubt themselves and their self-esteem is likely to suffer. If/when the deception is exposed, they may need counselling to recover from the betrayal and loss of trust; certainly, they will seek reassurance. Until/unless the deception is exposed, the deceiver is likely to continue deceiving, both to falsely reassure, and also because it becomes ever easier to tell larger and larger lies — with ever lower psychological cost.
The deepening cycle of deception
- Individual perpetrates deception.
- Deception leads to cover-up lies and hard-to-remember omissions.
- Managing dishonesty causes guilt/shame, resentment, aggression, & withdrawal.
- Victim/partner reacts to new behaviours with confusion, anxiety, anger, suspicion, or neediness.
- Victim/partner’s confusion/anxiety/anger leads to seeking reassurance
- To reassure & continue deceiving, deceiver tells more and ever-larger lies – with greater ease and lower psychological cost (and we circle back to Step 1).
Lies begat more (larger) lies
The “lower cost”, psychologically speaking, of continued deception has been demonstrated empirically numerous times.
“Fake” luxury sunglasses engender cheating. A study by Dan Ariely and colleagues confirmed the power that small falsehoods have to influence bigger lies. Female subjects volunteering to try on sunglasses for the supposed purpose of evaluating them were divided into three groups: (1) a group being told that the sunglasses were an imitation of a luxury brand; (2) a group who was told that the sunglasses were the authentic brand; and (3) a group not given any details about the sunglasses. After the women wore the shades, they were asked to solve a series of problems, but given the opportunity to cheat.
Of the women who wore the authentic brand, 30% cheated on the test. Of those without any information, 42% cheated. But of the group who thought they were wearing fake glasses, fully 73% chose to cheat. The experimenters explained that something that seemed like a small lie changed their view about right and wrong and sent participants “down the ladder” (to larger, more grievous falsehoods). Their “counterfeit self” came forward, because when people rationalise and lie in small ways, it affects their whole identity. Thus, lying is called the “gateway drug” to bigger assaults, because if one is going to do “bad things”, one needs to lie to oneself and others to get there (Whiting, 2018).
Bigger lies, weaker amygdala. The propensity to cheat or deceive is not just a personality or environmental thing; there are actually different phenomena going on in the brains of liars than those who are not prevaricating. In an experiment headed by Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist at University College London, researchers showed how the brain becomes inured to the stress or emotional discomfort that occurs when we deceive, making it easier to tell the next lie. In the fMRI scans of the participants, the team focused on the amygdala, a region of the brain that is involved in processing emotions. The investigators found that the amygdala’s response to lies got progressively weaker with each lie, even as the lies got bigger. “Engaging in small acts of deception can lead to bigger acts of deception” she suggested (Bhattacharjee, 2017).
Lying leads to health complaints
No more needs to be said here; deception simply does not engender health on any level (Lancer, 2018).
The liar is conning him/herself
As sorry as we may feel for the victims of a fib, we must note that the perpetrator suffers, too. In engineering a concealment of the truth, liars lose the opportunity to reveal genuine wants and desires to the world, rendering them untruthful to themselves as well (A Conscious Re-think, 2019). Their relationships — including the one with themselves — are thus no longer based on a foundation of truth, and cannot truly grow and prosper.
The truth default theory: the liar’s advantage
Notwithstanding the relational fallout that occurs when we feel foolish because we believed a liar, we are bound to be duped occasionally. Why is this? Tim Levine, a psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, explains that we navigate the world largely on knowledge that others have given us (as opposed to direct perception). Without the implicit trust in human communications, we would be unable to have relationships with others and, in fact, would be paralysed. Levine believes that we gain a lot of advantage from believing and suffer relatively less harm when we are occasionally told a lie. Calling this the “truth default theory”, he says that being hardwired to be trusting makes us intrinsically gullible.
Robert Feldman, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, refers to that as the liar’s advantage. “People are not expecting lies, . . . not searching for lies,” he claims, “and a lot of the time people want to believe what they are hearing”. And, think about it, if you are a woman, don’t you really want to believe that your bottom doesn’t look big in that dress? If you are an investor, how much resistance do you want to put up to believing in those incredibly high returns promised for a potential new investment? When the falsehoods are led by people who have wealth, power, or status, claims are even easier to accept. Beyond that, we tend to believe things (whether true or not) which affirm our worldview: a human vulnerability which has been demonstrated over and over by some of the memes that have gone viral on the internet, such as that Obama was born in Africa, that climate change is not happening, or — as we noted in our previous post — that Donald Trump’s inauguration attracted as many people as Obama’s did (Bhattacharjee, 2017).
Debunking such items with facts doesn’t work because people tend to assess evidence presented to them through a framework of pre-existing beliefs and prejudices (the “lies” or “half-truths” which they already hold in their heads). Thus, we will either ignore, not notice, ridicule, or be puzzled by emerging facts which don’t fit what we believe. Or, if the fact seems really threatening, we will attack it (Bhattacharjee, 2017). All of this adds up to a huge vulnerability of gullibility for most of us — and a concomitant capacity of those with malign intentions to succeed in duping us.
In short, the takeaway message from the studies and expert understandings cited herein is that, while most of us probably engage in at least “little fibs” on occasion, we also know that not all lies are created equal, and the “little white lies” we tell to spare someone’s feelings do not damage a relationship in the same way that serious omissions, half-truths, distortions, and blatant lies do. In addition to the many ways falsehoods poison relationships, we have shared the cycle of deepening deception that almost guarantees to move a relationship past a point of no return once initiated. In the final analysis, we can be duped, because we are hardwired to trust, and liars can take advantage of normal human gullibility. What is our defence against this? It may lie only in our ability to detect the differences in how liars use language.
In our next article, we take up the question of the tell-tale signs of deception in language.
- A Conscious Rethink. (2019). 8 ways lying is poisonous to relationships. A Conscious Rethink. Retrieved on 21 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Bhattacharjee, Y. (2017). Why we lie: The science behind our deceptive ways. National Geographic. Retrieved on 21 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Lancer, D. (2018). How secrets and lies destroy relations. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 21 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Peterson, C. (1996). Deception in intimate relationships. International Journal of Psychology, 31(6), 279-288. Website.
- Psychology Today. (2019). What is deception? Psychology Today. Retrieved on 21 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Serota, K.B., & Levine, T.R. (2014). A few prolific liars: Variation in the prevalence of lying. Journal of language and social psychology. 2014, April 4. Retrieved from: Website.
- Whiting, J. (2018). Small lies often lead to big lies in relationships. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 21 September, 2019, from: Website.