Why do we lie?

Shattering shared reality

Lying shields us from our vulnerability to our own unconscious desires, but also corrodes a shared reality. The liar wields the power to create their own reality free of uncertainty, writes Josh Cohen

Why do we lie? In one key respect, the psychoanalytic response to this venerable (and currently very urgent) question is broadly in line with other psychologies: we lie to evade the many and various unpleasant consequences of telling the truth. Lying to others can preserve us from the embarrassment of having values, tastes or desires that offend societal norms; lying to ourselves helps protect our favourable self-image. Beyond these defensive functions, lying can confer advantages over public and personal rivals and adversaries, in sex or business, art or politics.

But by placing conflict at the centre of our inner lives, psychoanalysis also enriches and complicates our understanding of lying. Freud proposed that our minds are a permanent battleground between the id, a reservoir of unbound and excessive desires both sexual and destructive, and the ego, the mental agency tasked with the recognising and navigating the claims of external reality.

We are shifted from a simplistic psychology of unconscious instinct against conscious reason, to a vision of the psyche as originally and irremediably ambivalent about its own desires.

Psychoanalysis is thus often seen as the inheritor of a psychology, familiar from the monotheistic religions as well as Romantic thought, in which instinct wages war with reason. But what complicates this Manichean vision is that Freud refuses a simplistic alignment of the unconscious with the primitive ‘truth’ of the human mind, and the conscious with its ‘false’ social veneer. A part of the ego, specifically the mechanism of repression, is in fact unconscious.

Why should this be of consequence for anyone beyond psychoanalytic practitioners and scholars? Above all because it gives us a much more paradoxical and interesting picture of psychic functioning than is suggested by conflict between an unconscious that is all lawless desire and a conscious that is all fearful compliance. If repression is unconscious – that is, if there is a primary impulse in us to tamp down the force of our sexual and destructive wishes – we are shifted from a simplistic psychology of unconscious instinct against conscious reason, to a vision of the psyche as originally and irremediably ambivalent about its own desires.

If there is internal pressure emanating from the drives to discharge my desires, there is an equal and simultaneous pressure to contain them, to keep them in bounds, a picture that counters the idea of civilization as a lacquer spread thinly over the authentic animal nature of the human being. It suggests that division and ambivalence are intrinsic to the very structure of psychic life, that we are creatures as given to saying no as to saying yes to our deepest wishes. Instead of being an imposition on our primal, savage self, repression is fundamental to who and what we are.

Freud gives us a nice illustration of this fundamental ambivalence in his famous case history of the young obsessional neurotic who became known as the ‘Rat Man’. The Rat Man is conducting a love affair which suspends him between erotic and hostile impulses of equal intensity. Brushing a stone in the road with his foot, he kicks it to the side with the thought that his lady’s carriage will be driving along this road in the coming hours; if it hits the stone, the carriage will overturn and she may come to grief. But a few minutes later, he is struck by the absurdity of this anxiety, and feels ‘obliged’ to replace the stone in the middle of the road.

What the Rat Man is playing out in this ritual , Freud suggests, is the conflict between his anxiously protective impulses towards his lady, and his hostile rage against her. From a rational perspective, the solicitousness about the stone overturning the carriage is indeed absurd. But unbeknownst to himself, the Rat Man is protecting her not from the stone but from his own murderousness. His removal and replacement of the stone is an unconscious performance of his anguished suspension between love and hate, the wish to defend and the wish to kill her.

Lying shields us from our own vulnerability to our unconscious motives and desires.

The example of the Rat Man comes to mind because it gives us a picture of the self as vulnerable to the volatile and unpredictable play of its own feelings. We are prey to wishes so extreme they frighten us, and that fear in turn amplifies the pressure of the wish, which then induces more anxiety, and so on. The ‘truth’ the Rat Man discovers about himself is neither that he’s ‘really’ a would-be murderer nor that he’s a loving protector. He is both at the same time, and this truth is troubling because it makes him more slave than master of his inner life. Instead of being in possession of his feelings, he is subject to their violent oscillations.

This might begin to help us understand the psychological appeal of lying. Lying shields us from our own vulnerability to our unconscious motives and desires, a point helpfully clarified by the British psychoanalyst Wilfrid Bion. Truth, Bion writes has an existence independent of the thinker; it persists whether a given mind discovers it or not, such that ‘the thinker is of no consequence to the truth’.

Truth will remain true regardless of whether I recognise it as such. At least some of us may feel we need the truth; but the truth doesn’t need us. The dubious comfort of the lie for the thinker, in contrast, is that it’s entirely dependent on the liar. Truth doesn’t need a teller, but a lie needs an inventor.

So if psychoanalysis posits that the unconscious contains the truth about us, this doesn’t mean that we’re all incestuous murderers at heart, but that we are emotionally divided, that we are liable to ignorance of our own passions. When psychoanalysis works, it reveals less who we are deep down than our own confusion and uncertainty about who (and what) we are.

A frequently noticed feature of the liar’s speech is its absence of doubt or ambiguity, qualities that enter our speech when we’re not lying; they signal that we are not in full control of what we say and mean. A practiced liar, on the other hand, is characterized by the overly slick command of his words. This self-assurance derives from his effort to keep out those elements of uncertainty (with regard to himself or the world) that he cannot command. As Bion suggests, his speech is a confection originated by and entirely dependent on his conscious will.

The liar’s speech triumphs over that uncertainty, bringing into being a world of his own making, corresponding to what he wants reality to be rather than what it is.

Once I acknowledge the existence of a truth that doesn’t depend on me, whatever I say is provisional and uncertain. The liar’s speech triumphs over that uncertainty, bringing into being a world of his own making, corresponding to what he wants reality to be rather than what it is. Perhaps this insight can help us understand some of the more disturbing developments in political life today.

As Masha Gessen has recently shown so forcefully, fact-checkers are hopelessly impotent in the face of Donald Trump’s lies. The fact-checker begins from the premise of a shared reality governed by the broad acceptance of universal criteria for truth and falsehood. The problem with the Trumpian lie is that rather than partake of this shared reality, it creates an entirely different one. Its purpose is not to challenge an existing view or assert another one, but to perform the right to impose (and revoke) any reality I choose: ‘It is the lie of the bigger kid’, writes Gessen, ‘who took your hat and is wearing it – while denying that he took it. There is no defence against this lie because the point of the lie is to assert power, to show, “I can say what I want when I want to.”’

The fact-checker, on this analogy, is the smaller kid whose tearful insistence that it’s his hat only fuels the bully’s pleasure and his own humiliation. Lying corrodes our shared reality, while its daylight robbers point gleefully at the losers who protest.

But are we not here smuggling in a slippage from the emotional truth that concerns psychoanalysis to factual truth? Where the former may be charged with ambiguity, the latter is surely a neutral domain. Facts state truths that can be confirmed by public record and cannot be altered by any amount of obfuscation or denial.

In her famous 1967 essay ‘Truth and Politics’, Hannah Arendt places this supposed self-evidence of factual truth in doubt. Factual evidence, she points out, is based on eyewitness testimony that can be disputed (the administration wheels out denials that Trump called dead soldiers losers and suckers), and on written or otherwise recorded documentation that can be dismissed as forgery (Trump reportedly raised doubts that the voice on the notorious Access Hollywood tape was his). In the face of what Arendt calls ‘the hostility of opinion-holders’, the supposed inviolability of factual truth becomes ‘at least as vulnerable as rational philosophical truth’. Or, we might add, as emotional truth.

The liar dominates and bullies by manipulating speech in order to forge an alternate reality impervious to doubt or contradiction.

Our metaphors portray lies as flimsy and weak, truth as rock-solid and substantial. But Bion and Arendt, in very different ways, show us how these very qualities can strengthen the liar and weaken the truth-teller. The liar dominates and bullies by manipulating speech in order to forge an alternate reality impervious to doubt or contradiction. Not by coincidence are those political leaders who lie most persistently commonly known as ‘strongmen’. In driving truth from public discourse, they can eliminate their opponents’ most potent weapon.

Totalitarian regimes have taught us that it’s much easier to wield power when truth has been abolished and replaced with whatever reality the regime choose to impose. This hints at the problem with thinking of truth and falsehood as a straightforward binary.

Psychoanalysis suggests that psychic truth itself involves a kind of falsehood, but one fundamentally different in kind from lying. To have an unconscious, it suggests, is to be forever vulnerable to self-division and contradiction. I may be filled with pleasure at hearing of my friend’s spectacular success, while unconsciously harbouring the wish to see her fall flat on her face. But it’s also hopelessly simplistic to suggest that my unconscious toxic envy is how I ‘really’ feel while my happiness is the lie that disguises it. It is because vastly different feelings can co-exist at different levels of consciousness that psychic truth can never be reduced to a bald, one-dimensional datum. As soon as we try to tell the truth about ourselves, we are in a region of doubt and ambiguity.

And this may be the essential appeal of the lie. It is the most efficient means we have of triumphing over our own vulnerability – to the painful feelings we harbour, to inconvenient facts that get in the way of the story we want to tell, to other ways of seeing or thinking. And as global political life has shown us increasingly over the course of the last five years, assuming the role of the invulnerable strongman can reap large and terrible rewards.


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Vyacheslav Dianov 28 September 2020

Incorrect reasoning based on the absence of a reasonable worldview and an objective understanding of the human soul.

Gary Behelfer 28 September 2020

I am not sure the term ambivalence describes the ego vs. id argument. Ambivalence implies an "I don't care" attitude rather than the unconscious struggle that is taking place. I see the interplay as contentious.
I was elated with the phrase that "the truth doesn't need us." As a science guy, the search for the truth and finding some small parcel of the truth in one's experiments is uplifting and joyful. Since it doesn't happen often, it is a precious commodity.

Trump is one that sees an alternate reality and invents facts to fit the his vision (He may in fact be from an alternate universe). As long as we don't drink the bleach, we have a chance.