In this information age lies abound more than ever. And the art of lying involves understanding the three major types of lies. This piece is an addition to the RR lexicon that may be of use in future discussions. The sequel here is an edited version of a little essay on lying first delivered in 1993 as part of a university lecture on critical thinking.
The term ‘lie’ has given trouble to semanticists and parents alike because it embraces such concepts as truth, intention, belief, and the roles of the parties involved. If we look at lying in more scientific terms, we see that it can be cast as a communication event that comprises of a message, its sender, and its receiver. We offer the following definition.
A Lie is a Message, the truth value of which is known to be ‘False’ by its Sender, who at the same time anticipates that the Receiver will assign ‘True’ to its truth value. As such, a Lie is simply a Message intended to deceive.
This somewhat technical definition is nevertheless sufficiently direct, comprehensive, and operational so as to support a useful analysis of lying - a most popular and ingrained human activity. The definition obviates such indeterminables as utilities and morality, and avoids the infinite regressions of “he knew that she knew that he knew…” that often cloud any discussion of lying. When the Lie results in consequential injury to the Receiver or third parties, those so injured are called Victims of the lie. From the definition - and our own experience - it is clear that lies can also prove of benefit to the Receiver and, indeed, in the large can conceivably have a neutral effect on all concerned.
Individuals in all known societies operate under an unwritten social contract which does not formally sanction lying. In other words no social order bases its operation on the practice of deceit. Indeed, in those same societies, being labeled as a liar is a stigma that works to the detriment of one so labeled. Many societies have codified certain aspects of lying into their laws and explicit codes of behavior ('What did he know, and when did he know it?'). It is these ‘aspects of lying’ which will interest us in the following.
The little vignette below illustrates the definition of 'lie' and catalogs three of the most popular types from a potentially very large taxonomy of lies.
Work colleagues Sam and Joe, currently vying for the same promotion, decide to see the Grand Canyon on the way back from a business trip. While taking photographs at the edge of a remote part of the canyon rim Sam asks Joe to snap a picture of him. Joe turns around and with his back to the rim becomes absorbed framing Sam whose image overfills the viewfinder.
Scenario 1: Sam sees an opportunity and instructs Joe, “Back up Joe, you’ve got plenty of room.” Trustingly Joe does and the canyon echoes with his scream as he plummets backward into the abyss.
Scenario 2: Concentrating on the camera Joe says, “I think I need to back up to get this to look good.” as he walks backward toward the precipice. Joe hears Sam say “No problem.” just before he loses his footing and disappears over the edge.
Scenario 3: Concentrating on the camera, Joe unthinkingly backs up to in¬clude more scenery in the picture of Sam. Sam sees the impending disaster, but continues posing silently as Sam disappears over the edge.
These scenarios illustrate the three most common types of lies we tell in order to gain an advantage. Depending on our values and mores, each subsequent one is held less onerous.
Type 1 - Explicit Lie: This is a known untruth explicitly uttered to elicit a behavior from the Victim which benefits the Liar along with (in this case) possible injury to the Victim. Scenario 1 illustrates this type of lie in which the Victim believed that the Liar would not actively seek to hurt him as part of their established social contract.
Type 2 - Opportunistic Lie: This is a more subtle untruth in which the Liar takes advantage of a serendipitous opportunity to gain advantage. In this type of lie the Victim instigates a behavior (activity), the liability of which he is not aware, while trusting that the social contract would compel the would-be liar to warn the would-be victim of a known (to the Liar) potential liability. Scenario 2 illustrates this type of lie since the Victim acted with the firm belief that, in specifically making known his course of action, the Liar would in turn warn him of any impending danger known to the Liar.
Type 3 - Veiled Opportunistic Lie: This is perhaps the most subtle lie that we tell each other and do so most frequently. Here the Victim again instigates a behavior harmful to himself and of potential benefit to the Liar, but in this case the Victim makes no overt statement of his intention. Instead the Victim properly assumes that the Liar is a component of the nurturing and sustaining environment as part of their implied social contract, and would therefore naturally warn him of any apparent danger. The Liar is fully aware of the Victim’s erroneous assumption and uses it to his advantage. Scenario 3 gives an example of this type of lie.
This short catalog is by no means exhaustive. We humans, and some animals, draw frequently from a rich catalog of lie types to suit our needs. The intent here has been to present a definition that can be used to illuminate the acts of lying and serve as a useful tool in their analysis.
As a final example of the utility of the offered definition consider the following scenario of a lie that is intended to harm its victim, but nevertheless will not cause the Liar to suffer any reprimand even if the incident were recorded meticulously by hidden microphone and camera – a lie known only to the Liar and God.
Little Larry who doesn’t like Bobby is asked by the latter what is the answer to 2+2. Larry, who is no great arithmetic genius, believes the answer to be five, but deliberately responds to Bobby with “four”, unwittingly the correct answer. The more limited dictionary definitions of ‘lie’ will not pick up this clumsy yet clear attempt to deceive the Receiver and make him a Victim. The operational definition given above has no problem with this seemingly difficult case since the Message ‘four’ was believed by the Sender to be FALSE, making him the Liar who also anticipated that the Receiver would take it as TRUE. The truth value of the message from a larger perspective is irrelevant to the communication and its correct ascription as a lie.
Finally, another view of reality management, truth modification, or lying
1. The spots of the leopard are a lie to its prey - “I am not here.”
2. Reaching its highest forms in the human, throughout nature the common denominator of survival is continual lying in one form or another.
3. In any larger society, lying is practiced from within and without for the “good (survival) of the society” as a super-organism.
4. Is there an “internal lying” process inside an individual for the sake of its survival - e.g. in the bicameral mind taught by Julian Jaynes (q.v.) - which requires another ‘intender’ to reside in the same body?
[update] Today we find corroboration of the points made above about the state being the prime promulgator of lies. Commenter MikeyM (1124am below) gives us the heads-up on the latest outrage the scumbags in the White House are pulling on America. Please read here.
It involves too many factors, all are important, on which to expand in this post. But the impact of such lies hidden from the public is clear to any but the most dimwitted ideologues of the collective bent. I hope that Russ Steele (here) and Anthony Watts run the distance with this.