Everyone's a liar. It's unavoidable. Right? Of course, there are lies and there are LIES. At least, that's what we are told. Putting it that way makes it seem like there is some kind of clear distinction to be made, doesn't it? There isn't. People tell you growing up that there are "white lies" — things you say to make people feel better — and that those are A-OK lies, lies of kindness. And then there are the other kinds of lies, the bad kind, which are not OK. But even that's a lie!
You realize this after you grow up and go into the world, where you discover that the lies are way more nuanced and complicated than that. There are the lies of lovers, the lies of advertisers, the lies of businesses, the lies of your government, the lies of chronic liars. There are the lies of your religion, promising you things no one can possibly know for sure. The lies of the audience, drunk and wildly clapping at your shitty Skynyrd cover. Or the lies of etiquette columnists and ethicists, who advise us to not tell people we love small true things, like that we don't think their haircut is flattering, or big true things, like that we cheated on them or that their father is not really their father.
In fact, in a way, the very definition of being a good and nice person hinges entirely on being the biggest liar — in part. Obviously it's doing and being a good person, with good acts. But it's also often seen as being the least likely to say anything that would offend anyone (which often means something true/unpleasant), or the least likely to say anything that you actually think (which is often something true/unpleasant). The reason we don't talk about religion and politics at the dinner table is that it shows our biases. Meaning, it's us being who we really are, saying what we actually think. That simply won't do.
Pretty much all of etiquette dictates that we smooth out our roughest edges, and never make our guests feel uncomfortable, which apparently either the truth or the lack of a fresh beverage will accomplish in equal parts.
And while obviously there's some amount of social fabric lying needed here to get through our existence — you can't live every moment like you're dying — at some point, there's also an ick factor. A falseness to the falseness that rings too false to put up with. Somewhere in the muck of puffing ourselves up there has to be some kind of deflating moment of reckoning. (No wonder we refer to brilliant assertions of unvarnished reality as "truth bombs.")
But this affection for the softer, nicer version of things is in our DNA. In a new study of the cooperative behavior of monkeys and apes, researchers found that animals are full of shit, too. They lie to eat, to hook up, and to form alliances. JUST LIKE US:
'Ultimately, our ability to convincingly lie to each other may have evolved as a direct result of our cooperative nature,' the researchers claim - and they say deception is still 'rife' in the animal kingdom.
They found evidence in 24 primate species that lying is more likely among animals who cooperate more, meaning it's a necessary component of being able to get along. But not just monkeys.
'It occurs in some spiders where males give worthless nuptial gifts to potential mates.' said McNally.
'It can occur in bacteria where they over-produce signals to elicit co-operation from others.
'It's even been shown to evolve in robots.'
'Our theory suggests that co-operation probably evolves before deception, but deception will follow hot on its heels.'
So, basically, to know people is to absolutely have to fucking lie to them — a lot.
But if it's so pervasive and apparently necessary, what's the big deal? Why don't we just embrace our lies and stop being such liars about lying, and own our shit? Lies are the social fabric of our lying lives! Why bother even trying to say something true?
Because we need some shit to be true. We are humans with lies in our DNA, but we also have survival and breeding on our minds. For us to really survive we have to get the things we think we are getting. And there is not a more lie-rich obstacle course for most of us than in our attempts at surviving via romance.
Cue false signals. That's when someone spends a bunch of money on your date to imprint the notion that they are loaded, when in reality they are maxed out to the gills in debt. If they're just trying to get laid, it may take for a night. But the moment you see their house, their car, their bank statement, the jig is going to be up eventually, and then what?
In a book about mating deception discussed at the Atlantic, Anna Broadway looks at the implications of our lies to lure a mate. She cites the Chinese man who successfully sued his wife when he found out she wasn't as naturally pretty as she appeared, but owed her good looks to plastic surgery. To him, this amounted to a false bill of sale — particularly when he laid eyes on his newborn daughter and found her "ugly."
That's an extreme example, but in fairness, complete and utter deception of the more "benign" kind — lying about education, salary, Botox — is perfectly acceptable according to scores of advice books that posit to men and women how to feign an entire mystery, intrigue, personality, busyness that you don't really possess, all to look appealing to your intended.
According to the authors, it's the desire to appear well off that's far more pernicious than any of that.
Geher and Kaufman argue in their book Mating Intelligence Unleashed that some of the greatest damage from mating deceptions, both individually and communally, comes from the status-enhancement of overspending.
So when we see someone whip out the cash and make it rain, we see them as generous, kind, and obviously, someone with money — all good things to look for in someone you might want to stick around, or especially raise a family with. But it's an unreliable indicator, and our desire to greenlight a potential partner via these early, tenuous symbols of wealth is fool's errand.
For both women and men pursuing long-term mating strategies, a potential partner's character, personality, and social status carry significant weight. None of these can be measured objectively, of course, status in particular. Lacking a modern-day version of Debrett's (the English guide to aristocrat's ancestry), we tend to judge others' status partly by their stuff. But that's not the only impact of casually wielding a brand-new iPad or Prada bag.
"In making social judgments of others, we infer all kinds of things from people's belongings," Geher and Kaufman write. "We infer personality traits, social status, familial background, and intelligence levels, and ultimately... we unconsciously infer genetic quality."
We do this with good looks, too. It's called the "halo effect," where you assign positive traits that you have zero proof of, like kindness or intelligence, to someone who happens to be more symmetrical.
How's this for symmetry? In a 2008 study cited in the piece, the authors mention a correlation found between debt and sexual partners, at least for men. More likely to splurge with money you don't have = more likely to fuck a lot of people. Whew, and to think I was worried reality was exactly the opposite of perception.
Of course, Broadway points out that in the book, nearly all the faux-riche posturing was done by men. But that makes sense in a world where we value men for their jobs/incomes. I would guess that the women are the ones more likely to lie about their age or cosmetic alterations.
If you're feeling very depressed now and thinking of charging up a bunch of booze on your credit card to look rich and avoid thinking about how none of us has any idea what's actually true, remember that, where there are lies, there are also lie detectors, AKA, people who are good at calling bullshit. And the authors think that this is our best remedy to the steady stream of manure we call trying to mate and ensure our genes live on by wearing good jeans.
"[H]igh levels of mating intelligence should go a long way in helping people tease apart genuine from false courtship signals," they write.
But if that doesn't work, there's a hilarious Chris Rock bit that sheds some insight. "When you meet someone for the first time, you're not meeting them," he declares. "You're meeting their representative." Ain't that the truth.