What is the first lie? Often so much is grafted to deceit in the telling, that afterwards the layers are difficult to unpick. So let’s start with a straightforward lie. A lie of omission. It’s as good an introduction as any to each of the players of our story – my family of six.
It’s the end of the day, and four children stand on the brand new textured linoleum of a seventies kitchen, hands clasped tight over their bums.
There is a smell of smoke and paraffin, an unsightly burn tarnishing Mum’s new floor. The lino pattern was her choice. Orange flowers, bordered by a fake wooden square, now repeat across the vast space between me and the back door. The man came to put it down last week.
Dad strides the length of us. Adrian, my eldest brother, is a teenager and his own mother dead. Blond, freckled and lanky, he is as remote as stone. Sean, adopted, is dark-haired, dark-eyed, and at twelve is the kind of child dubbed ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘energetic’ by his teachers, and ‘completely out of hand’ by every other mother we know. Next is me, the token girl. Aged six, I have red hair, wonky teeth and an eye that drifts when it’s tired. Finally there is round-faced, red-lipped Ed, who can only be four. Like Paddington he eats marmalade neat from the spoon, his stomach white and taut as a drum.
‘Who did it?’ Dad bawls.
Dad is a lecturer in Maths at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He’s dragged himself through poverty and prejudice to get here, and the difficulties are still not behind him. A father of four, he has lost one wife to septicaemia and gained a second, completing his PhD in the evenings, between bouts of Open University marking and the kind of parenting we find him in the midst of here.
I try to edge backwards, but am prevented by the kitchen table, where it is beached on a section of serviceable brown carpet tiles. It is this table we are hostage to twice each day, stuck in close proximity to a father whose unhappiness reminds me of the kind of fury the barking dog at the brewery shows, dragging its chain.
In memory it is not clear whether that day Mum has already lost the plot over the burnt lino and Dad arrives into this panic. More likely he brings it with him. A quiet, internal panic that drums through me till I can think of nothing else.
Most evenings I’m alert to the way the front door opens, and how long the silence lasts once our father is in the hall. I know about the density of traffic on Lothian Road, the vagaries of the head of department, and the difficulties of parking on the High Street outside. Sometimes, towards six o’clock, I peer through the fugged-up windows at the fifteen car-parking spaces on the harbour front, fingers crossed.
But burnt lino is far, far worse than inadequate parking and trouble at work. It is so bad my head is a white-hot hell.
‘Who did it?’
The answer is obvious. It seems impossible, even now, to think that Dad would have gone through the pantomime of asking. Yet he asks it again:
‘Who did it?’
My mother, in early memory, is like a mum in a cartoon: with her back to me, shackled to the white goods. Her loyalties are with the other adult. The scary one. The one shouting so loud the whole street will hear.
My loyalties must be with my elder brothers. They demand it. It is this fealty that silences the moist kitchen, condensation thick on every window, bubble and squeak in the pot. The stink of cabbage and corned beef mingles with the overwhelming stench of paraffin and burn.
‘Who did it?’
Dad knows who did it. Everyone knows. Because the steam engine has only been in the house as long as the lino. It is an inappropriate present to Ed, that Sean covets, and that we’ll never, ever see again.
However, for once Sean has not destroyed something on purpose. That’s why he hesitates. The burn is an accident. An honest mistake.
Till Ed can stand it no longer. His weakness is terrible and empowering: as soon as one of us has given in to terror, the rest of us can feel better that we didn’t.
It’s not a feeling-better that will last. The noise Ed makes begins to fill every corner of me, the anxiety brimming up inside like sickness. From experience I know my little brother’s cry will make things worse. Dad may not wait for an answer. He may go right ahead and beat us all.
But thankfully he makes a break for it, dragging Sean through the kitchen by his ear. He does not wait to get him up the stairs to his schoolmaster’s belt, but thrashes him right there in the hall, with the one that was buckled round his own trousers. And all I can think is that this is all Ed’s fault.
Since this is about lying let’s start off with some facts.
We all do it. Politicians, of course, are amongst the worst. There’s Watergate, the Clinton blowjob, Blair’s confused attitude to the evidence on the eve of the war in Iraq. Widespread institutional deception plagues the front pages. Individually and collectively we’ve been brought to our knees by the deceit of bankers. There’s the shameful behaviour of the Catholic Church as it tried to protect its reputation, and the scramble by the police to save themselves after the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989.
Police themselves are lied to every day. In one study by the Innocence Project, more than 25 per cent of wrongfully convicted people had made a false confession. People lie to keep themselves out of prison, but they also lie to end interrogations orientated around the presumption of dishonesty. Lies beget lies.
Findings show that the bigger the brain, the more frequent the deceit. Lemurs are less sneaky than chimpanzees. Humans lie most. Those who are interested in lie detection estimate that the average person will lie three times within a few minutes of meeting a stranger, and between ten and two hundred times a day. Women are more likely to lie to make the person they are talking to feel good, while men most often lie to make themselves look better.
Whether we’re a ten-a-day fibber or tell a monstrous two hundred, fMRI scans show that, when we do it, the prefrontal cortex is active. The prefrontal cortex is a little like Putin’s FSB – preoccupied with conflict, error detection, risky decisions and executive control. It also has a capacity, like the FSB’s director of records and archives, to retrieve those remote memories that we may wish were long forgot.
The reason the prefrontal cortex is the site of deceitfulness, rather than the more ancient, routine areas of the brain, is that telling a lie requires twice as much effort as being honest. We must weigh what we want to hide, build a deceitful version behind which to hide it, give a convincing performance, and finally remember that lie for the rest of our lives.
Research from the University of Southern California shows that structural brain abnormalities develop in people who habitually lie. Pathological liars have significantly more ‘white matter’ than ‘grey matter’ in their prefrontal lobe.
Grey matter is thought.
White matter is the communicative equipment between cells, or the wiring between thoughts.
This white matter is what gives liars a natural advantage. Habitually telling lies is an effort, an effort that thought – grey matter, or the worry, guilt and regret that we experience when we fib – inhibits. Researchers call the experience of these emotions ‘cognitive load’. Cognitive load is stress on the brain’s power to manage itself.
Paul Ekman, the psychologist who pioneered research into how emotions relate to our facial expressions, argues that this cognitive load leads to ‘leakage’. Leakage happens in the hands and the feet. Their movements betray us. The face we control with more vigilance. Chamberlain was to say when Hitler promised not to invade Czechoslovakia: ‘I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.’ It would be another few decades before we learned that psychopaths don’t leak.
Psychopaths are in a league of their own when it comes to lying. A study in 2009 found that they were two and a half times more likely than their saner counterparts to be granted parole. One could argue that this is less about having a better control of their deceit and more about self-belief. But for those of us who are not psychopaths, cognitive load is about the anxiety that we will leak and therefore be discovered.
Researchers at the University of Notre Dame asked 110 people to take a lie-detector test every week for ten weeks, reporting how many lies they had told. By the end of the study, all the subjects lied less, and all reported improvements in their relationships and sleep patterns; they had fewer headaches and fewer sore throats.
Liars talk too much, as you may have noticed. They bury their lies in narrative. Sometimes they use the third person, slipping from I into s/he, which enables them to disown their deceit, and they swear more than most. The amount of self-policing that goes into controlling a lie creates a situation where other areas of presentation fall out of control. For instance we may lumber into incoherence, repetition, aggression and pointing fingers. Liars also make better lie detectors. Individuals who are good at lying are good at catching others out.
For the majority of us it’s hard to detect a falsehood. On the whole we’re a gullible species, tending to think the best of one another. Our rate of lie detection is extremely poor, statistically only slightly greater than chance. Scientists call this a truth bias. When we are lied to by those we trust, the truth bias accentuates the betrayal we feel. As a result the cost to the liar is often enormously high. We may think that Tony Blair has got away with murder, and a small fortune besides, but when Boris Johnson, of all people, feels comfortable calling him an ‘epic, patronising tosser’, the short-term gains of Blair’s refusal to differentiate between self-belief and certitude must be a position he regrets. Though history may contest the versions of Blair’s leadership, there can be no dispute that his mendacity let us down.
This version of a life will be contested too.
However, I have not set out to deceive you. I wanted to tell you my story as truthfully as I can. But I must warn you, I have lied on occasion too.
Philosophers talk about a Liar Paradox. The statement ‘I am lying’ is impossible to unravel and is an area of logic which, after 2,300 years, still remains unresolved. ‘I am telling the truth’ will have its significant difficulties too.
Image courtesy of the author.