To explore the many dimensions of lying and why people lie. Also to explore whether or not technology has changed our ideas or opinions about lying.
This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These lessons are developed by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.
In this lesson, students learn about many different aspects about lying—what it is, why we do it, and how we do it. They also explore whether the advent of technology has changed our ideas or opinions about lying.
It is important to consider developmental and environmental factors when studying lying. Children are born into a social and cultural setting that affects how they learn to think and behave, by means of instruction, example, rewards, and punishment. They also are influenced by friends, peers, relatives, and the media. How individuals will respond to all these influences tends to be unpredictable. There is, however, some substantial similarity in how individuals respond to the same pattern of influences—that is, to being raised in the same culture. Furthermore, culturally induced behavior patterns, such as speech patterns, body language, and even lying, become so deeply imbedded in the human mind that they often operate without the individuals themselves being fully aware of them. (Science for All Americans, p. 89.) In this lesson, students will benefit from learning that lying is a natural byproduct of these influences.
Every culture includes a somewhat different web of patterns and expectations for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Unusual behaviors may be considered either merely amusing, distasteful, or punishably criminal. The social consequences considered appropriate for unacceptable behavior also vary widely between, and even within, different societies. (Science for All Americans, p. 89.) In the area of lying, students should gain in understanding of how social consequences impact the likelihood and nature of telling lies. They learn that the scientific study of lying is quite complex and has proven difficult to study.
Students discover in this lesson that technology has long played a role in human behavior, even in the elusive area of lying. In fact, technological growth continues to both influence and perpetuate the type, degree, and frequency by which we tell lies. The advent of cell phones and the Internet has given people more mediums and opportunities through which they can tell lies, often more safely than if they were to lie in person. Conversely, students also learn about the efforts by law enforcement over the years to find better technological means to detect truth from falsehood. As with human beings, these efforts so far have proven far from exact.
Students at this grade level are able to consider the personal and social consequences of individual choices in many areas of life. They need to assess trade-offs that occur in the lives of their friends (or their own) and that offer only unwanted choices. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 167.) In this lesson, they get to consider the social costs of lying and the benefits of being truthful, which most people learn as they grow older.
In the course of this lesson, students have the opportunity to see that there are many matters—like lying—that cannot be usefully examined in a scientific way. Similarly, there are beliefs that—by their very nature—cannot be proved or disproved. Scientific endeavor in these areas can, however, contribute to the discussion of issues like lying by identifying the likely consequences of particular actions, which may be helpful in weighing alternatives. (Science for All Americans, p. 3.)
One misconception to keep mind while teaching this lesson is that students do not realize that values, beliefs, and attitudes may differ from culture to culture or that people from other cultures have different ideas because their situations are different. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 346.)
As a fun and interesting way to get students’ attention, tell them an exaggerated story about an event that you witnessed. You might want to write down your story and practice presenting it a few times beforehand to progress smoothly from plausible to increasingly unbelievable details. For example, you could say that you were bombarded by softball-sized hailstones on your way home the other night.
Make a point to defend yourself and keep the lie going when students begin to suspect that you are not being honest. When the time is right, ask questions such as:
- What was I doing?
- What is a lie?
- Are there different kinds of lies? If so, what are they?
- Why do people lie?
- How do you know if someone is lying?
- In what situations might lying be the right thing to do? Why?
- What are some consequences of lying?
(Accept all reasonable answers. Encourage students to elaborate on their responses.)
Explain to students that they will learn about the art and science of lying, a very complex and common aspect of life.
Divide the class into pairs. Have each pair use their Lying student esheet to print out and read the All About Lying (Honest!) resource. As an alternative, you could print out the resource ahead of time and give it to students. Depending on your preferences, you may choose to read through the resource and discuss the material as a class or have each pair read through the resource on their own.
Have them answer all of the questions on their All About Lying (Honest!) student sheets as they read through the resource. An All About Lying (Honest!) teacher sheet has been provided.
Take time when they are finished to make sure they know what to look for when someone, like you in the Motivation section, is lying.
To help apply what they have learned and test the scientific view that most human beings can only tell the difference between truth and lies 55 percent of the time, tell students that they will describe a picture to their partner.
Then pass out a picture of a landscape or scene depicting people or animals to each student, whispering to each one whether he or she should tell the truth or lie in describing the scene in the picture. Encourage about half to lie and half to tell the truth. Make sure that at least one person in each pair tells a lie.
Explain that those who will be listening to the stories need to determine if they are true or false. They also should try to determine which parts of the stories they think are false and explain which indicators (verbal, facial, body) suggest this.
When finished, have them switch roles and repeat the activity. Discuss both the truthful and dishonest findings as a class.
Encourage students to develop a sense of healthy skepticism when it comes to figuring out whether a person is being truthful with them, and to what degree. You might also discuss how they felt about hearing and telling lies. Discussion questions may include:
- How did it feel to lie? To tell the truth?
- What kind of price do liars pay in these situations?
- Has this activity made you a better detector of lies? Why or why not?
- What if this person were telling you the same story by e-mail? Would you be able to detect if he or she were being deceptive? Why or why not?
(Accept all reasonable answers. Encourage students to elaborate on their responses.)
You also might want to point out cultural differences in the acceptability of lying. In sales, for example, exaggeration of product claims are well known, leading to the warning, “Let the buyer beware.” Also, in our culture, it is generally more acceptable for people in power, such as politicians, to lie to the public, for men to lie to women, and for parents to lie to children.
Finally, inform the class that over the past several decades, lying has kept pace with technology. Explain that, these days, people do not just lie in person, but they lie over the phone, through text messages, by e-mail, bulletin boards, blogs, websites, and in Internet chat rooms. To demonstrate how difficult it is to detect lies communicated electronically, you might want to create an example or two of e-mail lies and share them digitally or on an overhead projector.
Divide the class in half and have one group read the Science Update Lying on E-mail and the other, Phone Fibbing. Have them write a one-paragraph evaluation of what scientists discovered and the methods they used based on what they learned from reading and reporting on the material from the All About Lying (Honest!) resource. Instruct them to discuss whether they think the conclusions drawn from the experiments are valid and to indicate why or why not.
Students may enjoy unraveling this Liars and Truth Tellers puzzle from Ask Dr. Math, which involves a wandering princess who encounters two tribe members on an island, one who is liar and the other a truth teller. The answer on how to figure out who is telling the truth is provided, as is a mathematical basis for determining the solution to this puzzling scenario.
Students may find interesting Heat-Detecting Sensor May be Able to Detect Lying, an article from National Geographic about a heat-detecting sensor that could help security systems identify liars.
Science-based books on the psychology of lying include Charles V. Ford's Lies! Lies! Lies!: The Psychology of Deceit (American Psychiatric Press, 1999) and Aldert Vrij's Detecting Lies and Deceit: The Psychology of Lying and the Implications for Professional Practice (John Wiley & Sons, 2000).