Neurology-based advice on dealing with
a lying partner and work-related stress
Dear Dr Ash,
My partner is a liar. I don’t mean that she tells me massive lies, or has defrauded me. But she consistently tells unnecessary untruths, like pretending she was born in America when that was actually her big sister. She told one of our neighbours she’d been to Cambridge University, when it was Anglia Ruskin. And she claims to have read books and seen films she hasn’t. Sometimes she tells me daft things about her friends, which turn out to be untrue. I love her, but the more I investigate her stories the more they turn out to be false. I can’t see the reason she does this.
I’ve been reading your letter this morning on the train to London from my house in Somerset. It’s a spectacular ride, gliding magically over verdant fields dotted with sheep, past canals sometimes lined with longboats, and transitioning seamlessly into the pulsing excitement of the city. As I watch how quickly countryside turns into town, it strikes me that the social world we construct for ourselves, made of things like lies and alliances, may be more contiguous with the natural world than we think.
As a young graduate student, I read about the peculiar behaviour of a species of monkey that foraged for food both in trees and on the ground. While the group sat enjoying a bounty of fallen fruit beneath the forest canopy, one monkey would suddenly scream out an alarm call, warning of a jaguar. All the other monkeys would shoot up into the branches for safety, while our deceitful little friend remained firmly on the ground, gobbling up the fruit. Similarly, if the tribe was up in the trees squabbling over nuts and berries, there’d be a shriek from one of them, warning of an eagle, and everyone would again scarper – apart from one fat, lying, little monkey stuffing his face. Nature is not as innocent as we imagine.
The prevalance of lying in the natural world has prompted neuroscientists to study its biological basis. One model, proposed by Ming Hsu and his colleagues at UC Berkeley, suggests that deception can best be understood as a signalling behaviour. In this model the brain doesn’t ever really evaluate the veracity of information, only the likely social consequences of sharing it – in other words, whether the story matters more in a social and biological sense, than whether it is true. Trump was much criticised when he called this “truthful hyperbole”, and for better or worse (likely worse) many people seem to agree that it’s not the same as an outright lie.
As understandable as it may be, your partner’s penchant for truthful hyperbole may, like Trump’s, portend more egregious behaviour to come. Tali Sharot and her colleagues at UCL have shown that small deceptions desensitise the amygdala, the part of the brain that signals stress and discomfort during a lie. Subsequent lies therefore come more easily, and little deceptions can sometimes add up to larger ones. So I do think you have reason to be a little concerned.
Ultimately, I suspect you know why your partner tells these unnecessary untruths. She wants to be perceived in a certain way and doesn’t feel her authentic biography gives her the status she desires. If you respond to this by calling her a liar, she will likely feel defensive. If, on the other hand, you are aware that deception is a natural response to threat, and that the brain is more concerned with social realities than with material ones, you may find you can speak to her about this in a compassionate way.