The Half-Life of Lying: A Protest

How to catch a liar (and become a better one yourself)

Written by Jester

"He is a child of realism who is not on speaking terms with his father."
 -- Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

Oscar Wilde once wrote a paper on "The Decay of Lying" in which he bemoaned the failure of artists to make up "beautiful untrue things."

Wilde chose the term "decay" deliberately. In addition to being a playwright and essayist, he was also a nuclear physicist (well, he was the sort who could have claimed to be one with a straight face). Lies are like radioactive materials. Radioactive materials decay. That decay is expressed in what's known as a half-life. Defined in your Physics textbook as "The time required for half the nuclei in a sample of a specific isotopic species to undergo radioactive decay." Depending on the material, a half-life can be really quick--Radon 222's half-life is 3.823 days; or insanely long--Uranium 238's half-life is 4.47 billion years, or about the time of your average airport delay.

In Wilde's day, lying was like Bismuth 210; it had a respectable half-life of 5.01 days before it was no longer any good. They had Beautiful Liars, whose lies were skillful, or at least entertaining and made a damn good show. That was in 1889. Today, lying is more like Polonium 214, with a half-life of 0.000164 seconds, or the attention span of the Britney Spears fan club. We have Ugly Liars, whose lies are obvious, unentertaining, and reveal a deep black hole in the liar's personality. In other words, lying is not merely decaying, it's decomposing and smelling pretty ripe.

I really have to object to the state of lying today. I am not protesting the existence of lies, mind you. I agree that it's the fundamental function of an artist. It's also a fundamental survival skill. It's hard to be alive and avoid doing it. People who speak the truth constantly need to have a black belt or gun on their hip, and forget about making any money in this world.

I've written before that I've reduced my dishonesty thanks in part to a conscience I suddenly developed and haven't been able to shake. But when I lie, I try to be a Beautiful Liar. I confine my lies to stories I write. In my workings with the non-fantasy world, I try to lie intelligently. If you're going to do it, this the best way to lie.

In your stories, lies have no limits. Not credibility, not the physical laws of the universe, nothing. But when working with real people you have to show a little more restraint. Let's say you're going to lie. Let's say there's a problem at work, and you want to disassociate yourself with it, even though it's your fault. Here's some tactics you'd employ as a Beautiful Liar:

1. You keep the lie as simple as possible. No elaborate song and dance, just a quick, plausible tale.

2. Although you might be telling the lie to shift blame from yourself, you don't dump it on to the lap of someone else. Or if you do, it's someone who can't be hurt or held accountable ("It's that guy who died three years ago, he did it all").

3. If you're particularly clever, you double-bluff. You appear remorseful and ready to fully blame yourself for the problem, so someone can come along and console you about how it's not your fault.

4. You tell as few lies as possible. You remember the old saying "Nobody has a good enough memory to be a successful liar."

5. You aren't afraid to say "I don't know." Sometimes, your story doesn't have to be detailed down to minutiae (see #1). Not having all the answers actually sometimes increases your credibility.

6. You mix the lie with the truth as much as possible.

7. You leave yourself an out. You tell bits and pieces of your story, enough so that the person you are lying to draws the erroneous conclusion. That way, if you're called on it, you can always whine "I never said, you just assumed..." Or, along the same lines, you make what you said look like an innocent mistake.

8. You time and you tone. You provide the disinformation when appropriate, not out of the blue or too late. You also don't overstate or understate what you say. You know these things cause suspicion.

9. Nothing wrong with some minor flaws. Your lie does not have to be perfect. In fact, if it is, it will look suspicious. It's okay to make minor details sound odd or incomplete. Most people are trusting, and will explain things away themselves.

10. Above all, you remember that sooner or later, you will get caught. Even if you are never caught in the middle of a clear, fully exposed lie, if you keep generating lies, you will develop a reputation for being dishonest. You'll just give off that vibe.

This is Beautiful Lying, the former and nearly deceased state of lying. Today I am seeing more and more of the Ugly Lies. Ugly Liars violate the cardinal, bishop and pope rule of lying, which is NEVER BELIEVE YOUR OWN LIES.

This is an easy trap to fall into. In your efforts to sound sincere, you might try to turn off the part of the brain that knows you're inventing facts. It's easier to tell a lie if you believe it, but it's habit forming and extremely damaging to your personality.

I know some people whose entire lives are built around lies. Almost everything that comes out of their mouths is a lie, or at the very least an exaggeration. They tell these lies even though there are no advantages to doing so. Some people refer to them as "habitual liars." They've bought into their own lies so much that they're addicted to them.

Ugly Liars

Deep down, I think they feel inadequate, maybe even self-loathing. But hey, they have an imagination. The imagination can come up with any kind of pleasing idea it likes. And suddenly, just by saying it, it becomes true, and life isn't so bleak after all.

This is the fundamental characteristic of the Ugly Liar. They are not conscious of their own lies, or they believe something can be made true just by saying it. And because they lie constantly, they don't take the time to form subtle or well-rounded lies. They do not use the 10 tactics I mentioned before. They come up with these kinds of lies, which are much less convincing.

1. The Gauntlet Lie: I got this from a Sue Grafton novel. Her books star a private eye named Kinsey Milhone. Kinsey believes she is not a good liar, but compensates for this by making her lies so outrageous and obvious the only way to deal with them is either to challenge them...or avoid confrontation and let it pass. Thus, the lie's success is based on the balls of the person being lied too.

2. The Pre-Emptive Lie: Probably the most obvious lie of all. This is used by particularly bad liars. They realize at some point they will have to lie, so they do so immediately, not having the patience or courage to wait for the right moment. What would you think if someone said to you "You know your car? I'm not the one who stole it" before you even realized your car was gone?

3. The Reverse Confession: One of my personal favourites. Similar to the Pre-Emptive Lie, this is when the Ugly Liar accuses someone of something that they're guilty of. They probably think that if they start slinging accusations first, they won't look guilty. Or perhaps the Ugly Liar is devoid of imagination and makes this accusation because they are familiar with it and they know it's plausible--after all, they do it! If someone unexpectedly badmouths someone, no motivation apparent, count on it being a reverse confession. You can bet that the person who is speaking is guilty of the very behaviour they're condemning--"You know Joe Shmoe over there? He was fired from his last job for stealing."

4. The I'm So Cool At Everything I Do Lie: Habitual liars are especially guilty of this one. Everything the liar does is an adventure, in which they excel beyond the dreams of the bravest explorers, philosophers, and warriors. The story of how they really stood up to this complete asshole who butted in line at the bank, how they totally shamed them with some incredible wit, and how the bank teller was so amazed at this display of machismo that she immediately offered oral sex.

5. It's Hopeless Anyway: For some reason, this is the close relation of The I'm So Cool at Everything I Do Liar. Circumstances are so against the Ugly Liar that everything was doomed to fail. "The boss wanted me to do this, but didn't give me any resources, gave me five other equally impossible jobs, the Delta Force and SAS were hired specifically to stop me, and I had to do all this while submerged in a trunk and wearing a straight jacket." The underlying message behind this is that the Ugly Liar couldn't do or never tried the task, but won't admit it. It also feeds their general sense of paranoia. Sometimes, this lie is the foundation for I'm So Cool, in which the liar then describes how they came back and salvaged something against incredible odds. It can also be used to explain why the liar is supposedly so successful, but is working at Burger Shack.

6. The Self Contained Lie: This lie is harder to expose, but if it is, the liar looks like a Prime Cut Idiot. The Ugly Liar goes on the offensive and creates an entire problem or undesirable situation. They tell this lie to get their mark all revved up and worried. Then they assure the mark "Don't worry, I'll handle it." The liar disappears for awhile, and then comes back and says they've solved the problem. Aren't you relieved? Isn't this guy a big help? Did you notice that you didn't actually see any evidence of this supposed problem, except what the liar told you? That's because there never was a problem. For some laughs, you can make the liar shit themselves by getting very angry and demand the liar turn over all information, including names, so you can step in and handle this problem personally RIGHT NOW. Watch 'em dance!

7. Bogus Disposition: This is an indirect way of lying that also sends a false message about the liar. In it, the liar claims to be the exact sort of person he isn't. Instead of saying "I did not steal that," the liar says "You know me, I'm no thief." The lie can serve two purposes: to deny involvement in a specific incident, or to generally put forth an image that is not true to the liar's actual character. Another example: "You know me, I'm the kind of guy that admits right away when he's wrong." This sort of statement is made to support why the liar isn't admitting he's wrong. It creates a false background which in theory should be used to support the liar's claim now. We've got a trace of the Gauntlet Lie in here too: in order to call this lie you basically have to take up the very confrontational method of saying "You never admit you're wrong about anything, even when you obviously are."

These seven things are what passes for lying all too often, especially from habitual liars. They are careless, there is no thought or skill behind them. The Beautiful Liar has carefully constructed his or her lie. The Ugly Liar mumbles the first thing shit out by their tiny brains, with little thought for consequences.

Sometimes though, even a habitual liar can be convincing. How do you detect lies? For the longest time we've tried to make machines that will tell us when someone is lying, but we haven't been very successful. You've heard of the polygraph I imagine. The machine measures people's emotional reaction to answering questions. It really is inaccurate to call them "lie detectors." They can't actually tell you "This person said there are no dead bodies buried in his backyard, when in fact there are eight." All the polygraph can tell you is "This person seemed to get upset when answering the question about whether there were any bodies in his backyard."

Former FBI agent John Douglas, whose specialty was profiling and using psychology to catch, interrogate and prosecute criminals, particular serial killers, doesn't put any faith in the polygraph as a means of determining truth. He believes that it is possible to fool the lie detector if the person believes their actions are justified. Excessive nervousness can give false positives. Apparently there are books out there to help you beat lie detectors. Perhaps this explains why the results are inadmissible in court. Douglas does however, see the polygraph as a good tool for interrogation.

"According to the polygraph, you were very nervous when we asked you if there were any dead bodies in your backyard. Now why might that be? Are you sure there are no bodies there? Is there something else there you don't want us to see? What would you say if I told you I wanted to dig up your backyard?"

Supposedly there's another one now that will detect changes in heat around your eyes, which apparently happens a lot when you lie. It will probably be not much better than the polygraph--the same techniques can beat it.

But like you have a handy lie-detector around anyway. Like your habitual liar would agree to be strapped to one. There are other, more subtle methods for spotting lies. The behaviours I've mentioned are probably enough to out a good many liars. If you're not sure, there are other techniques. Here are a few, but keep in mind these rules:

A) When probing, do not sound like you're accusing. This leads to unnecessary confrontation, and puts the liar on the defensive. If you are the one who escalated the situation, bystanders may assume the problem is you. Sound confused, maybe concerned, but courteous. There's obviously an explanation for the inconsistencies, which is...

B) Don't expose the liar. Unless it's necessary. If you stomp on a habitual liar, it only makes them better liars. If outright disposal of the liar is not an option, pick up on their techniques so you will keep recognizing them.

C) If you do want to expose a liar for whatever reason, don't expose them on the first lie. Keep 'em lying, so they build up a nice bank of lies you can rip apart whenever they try to regain face.

D) Some of these tactics will produce explicit results, some of these tips are quite subtle. Don't go supersonic with accusations just because someone is slightly off. They might be innocent and there could be an honest explanation. If they succumb to more than one of these tactics, or keep exhibiting the same suspicious behaviour, then it's safer to draw your conclusion.

And now, on with the tactics of spotting a liar.

1. Ask the same question twice. Oldest and most obvious trick in the book. Did the story change? Were details added or dropped? For safety's sake, you might want to reword the question, but not so much it could be interpreted as a different question all together.

2. Repeat the lie. This one is great. Liars hate being out of control of their own creations. After the liar has laid down their story, repeat the story to someone else in front of the liar. Watch them sweat. "So, your son tells me he was a Navy SEAL. You must be very proud of him." The other person might call the lie, in which case you can act shocked and defer them to the liar, looking totally innocent. Or they might be forced to go along with the lie, not wishing to expose the liar. But they won't be happy or comfortable about doing so. Be warned that this tactic might improve the liar's lying patterns, at least around you.

3. Invent some details yourself. Remember how we discussed that you can leave a few holes in your lie, so your mark will explain them away? If you notice a hole in the story, query it, but immediately invent a plausible story out loud. Or, if you're really frisky, invent whole new facts. If the story-teller begins implementing your details, especially more than one, they probably be lyin'. It's true that the speaker might be merely embellishing, but if you successfully provide lots of details (or particularly outrageous details) the original story is probably a load of lawn fertilizer.

4. Here's an obvious one: when the liar isn't looking, go and verify the details. If you haven't been challenging the liar, they get careless and assume you won't check out what they say (Keep in mind rule B and C). Don't stop at just one detail. Whether you find the first thing you investigate is true or false, keep digging. You'll soon see a pattern that will tell you if you're dealing with a simple mistake or exaggeration, or a load of bullocks.

5. Discuss the lie with others. Don't present the story as though you are checking its validity. Mention it in casual conversation to someone else the liar may have told the story too. Many are too careless to be sure of telling the same details. You might have to talk to a few people to be sure.

6. Watch how the suspected liar tells the truth. This is not always possible, but if you can swing it, it will help determine the behaviour of the liar. If you can, observe them in situations where you know what they're saying is the truth, and what is said would expose them to potential ridicule or anger. You'll probably see a change in the personality.

7. Watch how the liar tells lies you invented together. Get the liar to tell something you invented together to another party. Watch their mannerisms. You're training yourself to detect their lies.

8. Too Much/Not Enough Information: When lying, it's difficulty balancing the information you need to convey. Too much, it sounds laboured, not enough, it sounds suspicious. The liar is forever trying to maintain equilibrium here. A few questions could tip the balance. For example, some questions merit further comment. If you out of the blue ask "Were you banging my dog at 12:32 AM on February 12th," and the answer is a simple "No," and it's left at that, you're suspicious. Your question deserves a more passionate response. Like "No, and what the fuck gave you the idea that I did?" The opposite blunder the liar can make is overcompensation. If your question was simply "Were you in my backyard last night?" and they respond with a lengthy tirade about how you could accuse them of such a thing, that they though you trusted them, etc., etc., you have to wonder why a simple question merits such a response.

9. Watch for Reversal of Detail: another term I borrowed from law enforcement. When a person is telling a story truthfully, they tend to start with the information they are sure of and most familiar with first. Thus, the details of the story come out at the beginning, and get more vague as the person goes along. With a liar, the opposite is true. The story is vague at first, then gets more detailed as the liar becomes more confident. This apparently is one of the very first things that alerted South Carolina police to the deception of Susan Smith, who claimed a black man had hijacked her car with her children in the back seat. In fact, she had rolled the car into a lake on her own, drowning them.

10. Withhold Information: If the liar is denying all knowledge of something, start to explain things, but omit certain details. This is the classic murder mystery detective tactic. "I'm shocked! Who could have stabbed poor Smedley?" "Miss, I merely said Smedley was dead, I didn't say how." You get the idea. Be very sure of yourself here. The liar might mindfuck you into thinking you did reveal this info. The liar might also come up with an excuse about hearing it elsewhere.

11. The Face-Saving Scenario: This technique can sometimes be used to get a liar to admit the lie. I borrowed it from John Douglas. He says that a lot of criminals won't admit their guilt, because of that jail thing and the lethal injection and stuff. Your liar may not face such consequences, but they will suffer embarrassment and a damaged reputation, so they won't be eager to 'fess up. Unless you described for them a situation in which they had no choice, or were under extreme pressure and it's certainly understandable why someone might do this, blah blah blah. Basically, you are pretending to be sympathetic. "Look, I know you're the sort of person who doesn't normally do this. You must have been under a lot of pressure, and you probably got a little confused..." If the liar thinks you're on their side and won't punish them, they might admit everything. The unfortunate side effect is that it can provide the liar with a ready made excuse. It also makes you look pretty manipulative too.

How Ugly Liars Behave When Caught

"Hence came their objection to realism. They disliked it on purely social grounds." -Oscar Wilde

If you do catch an Ugly Liar cold, pants down, no wiggle room, be prepared to hear about what a horrible, terrible person YOU are.

When I was a kid, a friend of mine told me a story of how he was watching Porky's, a teen comedy his parents had forbidden him to see. He was down in the basement with the household's second TV, while his parents were upstairs on another TV.

Somehow they guessed what he was up to and called him upstairs. My friend was quite angry with his parents for this lack of trust. He told them, right to their faces, that he was mad at them because they didn't trust him. He also said, in all sincerity, that the fact that he was doing what they suspected of him was completely irrelevant.

I once caught a habitual ugly liar in a particular nasty lie. Someone else confronted the liar about it. Ugly Liar became outraged, and suddenly went on about how mean I'd been to the Ugly Liar, how I'd had it out for the Ugly Liar for a long time, how the Ugly Liar had done so much for me, and this was how I was thanking them, blah blah blah.

Like my Porky's-watching friend, the Ugly Liar was furious for me not playing along with the illusion. Never mind that the lie could have caused series legal repercussions if it hadn't been detected. It's my belief that Ugly Liars are so uncomfortable with themselves that they need to tell lies in order to be secure. It's their method of socializing. When we're in groups, we are uncomfortable until we hit upon a common ground of conversation. I'm convinced that sports are so popular because they're a safe topic of conversation.

"See the game last night?"
"Yeah, good game."

You can have this conversation with lots of people. There are other safe topics of conversation--movies, TV shows, your jobs...the vast majority of people have some experience with these things, so they can safely talk about them. Talking is a form of intimacy.

And so is lying. But the Ugly Liar doesn't feel comfortable with even these subjects. What if there's a person in the crowd that went to film school and uses terms like "Mis-en-Scene" and talks about Francois Truffaut? The Ugly Liar doesn't want to appear foolish. So, it's much safer to talk about things that are purely imaginary. What's safer than a "fact" you make up yourself?

Well, as we've seen, these lies are quite fragile, and easily exposed. But if you expose them, you are denying the Ugly Liar's only comfortable form of intimacy. They consider it a form of rejection, that's why they get mad at you. Lies are their version of the handshake, and your exposure of the truth is you snubbing them.

The Consequences of Lying

"Society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar." -Oscar Wilde

This next bit will sound like it's coming from a nun, so I find it necessary to throw in some random cursing to make sure my street creed is still maintained. Tits. Fuck. God damn son of a bitch shit.

All right. There are Beautiful Liars and there are Ugly Liars. You should absolutely avoid being an Ugly Liar, and even a Beautiful Liar: ultimately, the person it does the most damage to is you. It's not just that it will change how people see you (though it surely will), it will change you. It will change your core personality deep down in way that is very difficult to fix.

I have known two habitual liars. Both were the official jokes of the circles they haunted. Both were widely known for their ridiculous stories. It was impossible to hold a normal conversation with them. They were both very self-centered. Such people are difficult to tolerate when they've actually got some accomplishments, but what good are self-centred people whose credentials are pure manure?

When they weren't around, we'd joke about them and tell stories. I don't know if these people overheard anything specific, but they could probably sense the lack of respect. So what did they do? They tried harder to impress. The compensated by being over-friendly, offering to do everything and anything. These attempts were misguided--who wants to feel like they owe this kind of person? This in turn helped add a new kind of lie to their repertoire--their availability as the big helper. This was safe, because they could promise the world, but nobody would make them deliver. Nobody wanted to be around them to try and make them.

And of course, to win over people they increased their lies, declaring more wonderful and exciting achievements. And still more friendliness. This made them ever more annoying...more of this is exactly what is not needed. Then they were confused and hurt when it still didn't work. I've heard habitual liars voice their genuine loneliness and confusion over why nobody respects them. They don't understand that they've based their entire personality around phoniness. Who wants to be associated with this kind of person? Deep down there is an emptiness, a complete lack of substance. But their entire social interaction is based on that.

Another consequence of lying is that you start to think like a liar. Maybe you get extreme to the point of a habitual liar, where you fill all silences and your turns to speak with lies because you don't feel comfortable with anything else. But more likely you get suspicious first. All the world is full of liars to a liar. This is the ultimate consequence of lying: you lose all sense of reality. Since you're aware that you lie like a tobacco company's latest health study, you are constantly worried others are lying to you. Or lying to others about you. By the same token, nobody is more afraid of being robbed than a thief. Not surprisingly, the habitual liars I've known have been incredibly paranoid. One of them just had to know the contents of every conversation he wasn't party to. What was said? Did you talk about me?

Even if you still remain self-aware and in control of your lies, you will still be altered. As I mentioned before, even without getting caught, you'll develop a reputation for being shady. People will notice how nothing ever seems to be your fault, how you said something would be done but something always comes up, how you've always got an answer for everything. You'll probably get the liar paranoia I mentioned above. Or you'll develop a truth-wariness. Every time you need to open your mouth, you'll wonder "What should I say? Should I be honest? Have I said anything previously that honesty would now jeopardize? Would being honest now prevent lying later?" On and on.


So that's why you should be honest--it's for your own sanity. Think of it this way--the woman who continually fakes orgasms may never get a real one. Her lover is fooled, why make any change in technique if she's supposedly satisfied? And for men, believe me, an orgasmic partner will make you very glad you made the effort. There, the implication here is that telling the truth might get you better sex. If that doesn't motivate, I just give up.

Incidentally, having read this document, you might think you're in a better position to lie to me. I should now inform you that I have held back some key techniques and tips for my own safety.

Or am I bluffing?

I would like to think John Douglas, Leo N., Sue Grafton and Jeff Coleman for their thoughts and contributions to this article. An extra special thanks to the two habitual liars who unwittingly provided me with the bulk of my research. You guys, unfortunately for you both, probably don't know who you are.