What is a Lie?

I’m reading a fascinating book Liespotting by Pamela Meyer. Below is an excerpt from the book.

What is a Lie?

Cover of "Liespotting: Proven Techniques ...
Cover via Amazon

Most of us want to think of ourselves as honest. The participants in Feldman’s experiment wouldn’t describe themselves as chronic liars, despite the evidence that they lie — or that they offer inaccuracies far more often than they realize. After all, isn’t it possible that one person’s lie is another person’s polite agreement? We’ll leave the debate over the morality of different types of lies to philosophers and theologians. Instead, let’s concentrate on finding an objective definition of what constitutes a lie.

Talmudic scholars identified lies as geneivat da’at, “the theft of one’s mind, wisdom, or knowledge.”**St. Augustine believed that a lie occurs when we “hold one thing in our heart and say another.”** Modern-day social scientists, in an attempt to disengage from the moral ambiguity and emotional weight that can surround deception, have established four defining criteria for a lie.** Though he’s not the best model for twelve-year-old boys aspiring to the big leagues, Pete Rose-who was banned from baseball and made ineligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame for betting on games (which he finally admitted to in 2004, after years of denials)– gave us excellent examples of those four requirements

  1. A Lie Must Include a False Statement or Appearance.Rose lied both in words and actions, making false statements that he “never bet on baseball,” and conveying the appearance that he wasn’t betting on games.
  2. A Lie Must Have a Recipient; Otherwise It Is Self-Deception. Whether by commission or omission,Rose lied to his teammates, his fans, journalists, and Major League Baseball. He may have also been deceiving himself, but we’ll leave that to his psychoanalyst.
  3. A Lie Requires the Intent to Deceive; Otherwise It’s an Honest Mistake. Rose knew that betting on baseball was against the rules. He concealed his behavior so that he wouldn’t get caught.
  4. A Lie Requires a Context of Truth. Sometimes people are willing to suspend their disbelief. The audience in a movie theater knows that a car chase that takes the characters across all of New York City would last longer than two minutes. A magic show would be a sordid affair if the crowd didn’t trust that the woman being sawed in half was actually going to survive. The public and the media, however, expected Pete Rose to behave honestly and to tell the truth.

In sum, the scientific definition of a lie is as follows: A message knowingly transmitted to another person with the intent to foster false belief or conclusions and without prior notification of purpose”**

Watch a video about How to spot a liar: Pamela Meyer on TED.com


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