Men lie up to eight times more than women. True or false? Following her own run-in with a compulsive fibber, Sophia Money-Coutts sets out to separate fact from fiction.
First, I need to tell you a brief story. Some years ago, I fell in love with a man who couldn’t stop lying. He lied about sleeping with other women while promising that I was the only one; he lied about going on holiday with his mother and his sister when, I later found out, it was with his ex-girlfriend and their baby. It was a deeply toxic relationship that took me several years to get over and it was only last July that I felt emboldened enough to write about it for this magazine, under the headline ‘I thought only stupid women fell for bad men’.
A month or so later, a woman I didn’t know contacted me on Facebook asking if my article was about her ex (she named him, which I hadn’t done in the original piece). Turns out, she’d dated this man after me and his lies had become more extraordinary – he had cancer, he told her at one point after a big row (‘to creep his way back in with me’), but he later forgot he’d told her this and she caught him out. He also claimed to work for MI5. I would have laughed if it hadn’t made me so angry. He was still out there lying; still hurting and damaging women.
Around the same time, I relayed this tale of woe to a female friend who has four children – two sons, two daughters. Jess made an interesting observation. ‘When the boys were little, they would lie about tiny things, like washing their hands before lunch,’ she said. ‘Fibbing was instinctive in them in a way it just wasn’t in my girls.’ And now they’re teenagers? Jess laughs. ‘They all lie to me about smoking and what time they got home. But the boys still do it more.’
Big deal, you may think. Doesn’t everybody lie all the time these days? Dating profiles lie, email spammers from Nigeria lie and we lie to our friends when we claim we are too ‘busy’ to come out for a drink when in actual fact we just want to stay in and watch The Crown. If I’m honest, I lied within an hour of getting up this morning. I said I was ‘good’ when the barista in my local coffee shop asked how I was (I wasn’t ‘good’; I’d slept badly and was stressed about work, but it was easier for both of us if I said otherwise).
But there’s a broad spectrum of lying – from a small, feel-good fib to your children about Santa to Bill ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ Clinton. And according to several experts and studies, men and women not only lie for different reasons, men tend to ‘lie bigger’, too.
‘Women are more prone to white lies,’ says behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings. ‘Lies where you’re trying to make someone feel better or not upset them. It’s about protecting other people.’ I’d never dream of telling a friend she looks fat in a dress, I say, and I’d be peeved if she said the same to me. ‘Exactly,’ says Hemmings.
She points out that men, on the other hand, are ‘more prone to black lies, self-serving lies to make themselves feel or look better. There’s a real difference.’ We get into a debate about a row a friend of mine had with her boyfriend over ‘the numbers conversation’. He initially told my friend he’d slept with ‘around’ 50 women. It later transpired this figure was over 100.
‘That’s a totally self-serving lie to make his life easier,’ says Hemmings. ‘He came across a number that he thought would be appropriate, enough lovers to show that he is experienced and skilled but not so many that he looks like a sleazebag. He told her what he thought she should hear; it was easier to lie than it was to tell the truth.’
I think about other examples I’ve gathered from both sexes. Multiple female friends admit to lying in relationships, but these lies tend to follow Hemmings’s argument that women fib as a protective mechanism. ‘My parents love you!’ or, ‘No, honestly, I love those shoes!’ Several girlfriends admit they’ve perfected a convincing fake orgasm because ‘it’s just easier’. Faking it is perhaps the ultimate example of a female lie – something we do to make another person feel better but very much at our own expense.
By contrast, a male friend confesses to lying to his new girlfriend about his ex, telling her the ex had never been to his parents’ house. This wasn’t to protect her feelings. His main goal was to dodge a row, thus protecting himself. But he was busted shortly afterwards when the new girlfriend found a photograph of his ex actually in his parents’ house. ‘I panicked,’ he says, pulling a guilty face. ‘I wanted to avoid trouble.’
According to the experts, we are hardwired with biological differences that explain this gender-specific approach to deception. ‘Women are more emotional, more reassuring,’ says Hemmings, ‘whereas men are less nurturing. They lie to make themselves feel better or to impress other people. Men still feel that they need to prove themselves, in terms of status, more than women do.’ Just look at Daniel Elahi, the last man standing on the most recent season of BBC One’s The Apprentice, who was caught lying about the number of hangover cures he’d sold. His Amazon product page claimed that it was one million; he’d actually only shifted 47,000. Unsurprisingly, Lord Sugar informed him he was fired.
I am reminded of the scandal surrounding US author Dan Mallory, whose debut crime novel The Woman in the Window, published last year under the pseudonym A J Finn, has been a runaway success. This month The New Yorker ran a story revealing that Mallory’s many claims include to have nursed both his mother and brother through their final days (both are alive and well); to have himself undergone numerous medical procedures and cancer treatments (with no sign of any physical effects); to have taught literature at Oxford where he received a doctorate (he never completed it); to have worked, as an intern, on script rewrites for the film Final Destination (the director denies this); and that J K Rowling’s pseudonymous novel The Cuckoo’s Calling was published on his recommendation (it wasn’t). It also pointed out that Mallory’s Oxford studies had concentrated on Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels, which are about a charismatic, dangerous impostor, while plot elements of The Woman in the Window seem similar to those in Copycat, a 1995 thriller movie starring Sigourney Weaver.
The trouble is, according to Hemmings, that lying can be addictive. ‘Lies trip off the tongue much more easily when you’ve told a few. You’re believed, you’re trusted and then you carry on.’ So lies can have a cumulative effect – small lies become big ones. ‘Once you’ve started telling lies, the tendency for veracity diminishes, and so more practised liars become better at it, because the process becomes easier,’ she adds. ‘It may be about getting in so deep that you have to keep lying, but it is often simply the brain, the pre-frontal cortex in particular, which adapts to frequent lying. It becomes not quite autopilot, but definitely more familiar and comfortable.’ Thus some men lie about tiny things that don’t even matter, such as whether they had chicken or fish for lunch or which pub they went to.
I ask Hemmings whether a compulsive male liar ever gets to the point where he believes the extreme lies he’s telling his hapless partner, such as inventing a cancer diagnosis as a get out of jail free card for bad behaviour. No, she says simply.
So why do it? ‘It’s a sort of desperation,’ she says. ‘They get a kick out of the result, which in this case is to get someone to stay with them; it’s a means to an end – all they focus on is the outcome. Often they’re highly narcissistic people, very charismatic. But they know exactly what they’re doing.’ And they can’t stop themselves? I ask. ‘They don’t have the same levels of remorse or guilt as those of us who lie when we see it as the only appropriate option, and who may well feel terrible about doing it for a considerable time afterwards,’ explains Hemmings. ‘Probably, even when called out, compulsive liars don’t think it’s such a terrible thing.’
Pamela Meyer is an American fraud examiner and author of a book called Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception. Her TED talk, ‘How to Spot a Liar’, has been viewed nearly 22 million times. Like Hemmings, she says that men tend to lie more about themselves than women (‘some studies suggest up to eight times more’), and adds that they generally feel more comfortable telling lies than women do. But Meyer says there’s good reason for this. ‘Let’s not forget that the dynamics between men and women are complex, nuanced and messy. Lying has an evolutionary purpose. If a caveman told another caveman where his cave was, he could lose women and food.’ So while the original caveman lied to protect his territory, the modern-day caveman equivalent, says Meyer, is the man who lies on his dating profile, boasting about a job he doesn’t have.
According to Meyer, male lying has a strategic purpose. Whether a man tells you a lie because he’s arrogant (‘I played football for England’), selfish (‘I promise I’m getting the train home after this pint’), they don’t want to get caught out (‘I didn’t sleep with her’) or because there’s a lack of empathy (‘I have cancer’), Meyer says it happens because men are programmed to be ‘leaders of the pack’. It’s about self-advancement, to boost themselves in their own eyes as well as those of others.
‘I’m not being an apologist for the scummy liars of the world,’ she insists, but adds that we need to look harder at ourselves in certain situations. ‘As women, we can complicate things by wanting our men to be powerful, confident and in charge. We signal that’s what we want, unconsciously encouraging men to bolster themselves, and then we often point the finger unfairly at them accusing them of exaggeration.’
In other words, if we’re being lied to, then we’re in on it. Hmm. I’m not sure I ever wanted a boyfriend to prove himself to me by lying, but Meyer goes on to explain that ‘we are all subject to being deceived. It really comes down to knowing what you are hungry for, your own blind spots. If you’re hungry for love, you’re more likely to choose the wrong mate, or be taken in by someone who knows how to flatter you in just the right way. If you’re hungry for money, you’re much more likely to be taken in by a financial scam.’
Although it pains me to admit it, I recognise myself here. When I met my ex I’d been single for a long time, while it felt like all my girlfriends were getting married. I was lonely then someone charming came along, and I was enthralled by feeling like everyone else. By the time I found out the extent of the lying, I was already madly in love. It’s harder to extricate yourself after that.
Meyer says the ‘best bet is to know your blind spots’ (if you don’t know exactly what you’re hungry for, then ask your closest family and friends what they think) and ‘learn how to spot a liar’ (see left). Me? I reckon my experience means I’ve developed a Sherlock-style intuition that enables me to spot a liar, to be able to sniff out a man who tells me he’s single when he’s married, or who’s instantly too flattering or persuasive. Admittedly, I’m also still single, but there’s got to be an honest one out there somewhere, right?
Is he lying?
Fraud expert Pamela Meyer on how to read the signs.
- Look out for qualifying language. ‘In all honesty’, ‘to tell you the truth’, ‘as far as I know’, could signal, paradoxically, that someone isn’t telling the whole truth.
- Has he repeated your question back to you? It’s a tactic often deployed for extra thinking time to invent a plausible fib or explanation.
- Scan for conflict between body language and what he’s actually saying. If he’s smiling while telling you something, but simultaneously shrugging his shoulders, this could indicate an internal unease.
- Asymmetrical gestures. A raised eyebrow, a lopsided smile or a sneer could indicate foul play since truthful gestures are more normally symmetrical.
- Check the pronouns. Liars will often use ‘you’, ‘we’ or ‘one’ instead of ‘I’ to distance themselves from what they’re saying. ‘We all stayed in the bar late – anyone could tell you that.’
- Listen hard for superlatives. We pepper our conversations with them nowadays, but if he’s using words such as ‘absolutely’, ‘literally’ or ‘totally’ more than usual, he could be trying too hard.
- If you’re really suspicious, get him to repeat his story backwards. It’s an old FBI trick, used on the basis that it will be much harder to remember the details if he has made it up.