My scientific interest in deception began with my contact with psychiatric and medical patients who, as compulsive liars, told fantastic yet somehow believable stories in an effort to make themselves more interesting. Later, I became increasingly aware of the almost constant barrage of lies that one experiences in day-to-day life-- from children, politicians, salespeople, advertisers, colleagues, friends, relatives, and even oneself.
Lying is a ubiquitous yet, from a psychological perspective, understudied phenomenon. Why lying should be the subject of so little scrutiny is of interest in itself. Perhaps it is because lying is such an intensely emotional issue. Adults tell children that there is nothing worse than a liar. In the age of chivalry, calling someone a liar was grounds for a challenge to a duel. Despite such attitudes about the evils of lying, we are all liars: we lie to others, and we lie to ourselves. If lying is so prevalent, why is it regarded as so bad, and why has it been the subject of so little study?
Noting the scarce psychiatric information available about the subject of prevarication, my colleagues Drs. Bryan King and Marc Hollender and I reviewed the medical literature on lying and wrote a review article that was published in 1988 in the A Journal of Psychiatry. We attempted to be objective in our approach rather than to take a moral position. The response to this article was fascinating. Several newspapers, including the New York Times and the Boston Globe, published feature articles based on our work, particularly emphasizing our ideas about the role of personality in lying. One newspaper columnist, without mentioning us specifically by name, expressed the opinion that society was in trouble because by not taking a moral stance (condemning lying), we (psychiatrists) were in essence condoning it.