• There’s a hierarchy when it comes to identifying who is lying and who is telling the truth. (E+/Getty)
New research shows that lying is informed by cultural background. But, as Neha Kale writes, in a world in which fake news and false claims are increasingly held up as normal, it’s equally important to examine the factors that shape our perceptions of honesty and deceit.
By
Neha Kale

11 Sep 2017 - 3:48 PM  UPDATED 11 Sep 2017 - 3:48 PM

It’s hard to think of a modern-day skill that’s as called for as the ability to untangle truth from lies. Last month, Trump levelled a bogus nuclear threat at North Korea via Twitter, teleporting us back to the Cold War in the process. Last week, Facebook revealed that 470 fake accounts — with links to a Russian troll factory — spent $100,000 on ads that spread divisive political messages. Closer to home, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton recently insisted that subjecting new immigrants to a university-level English test would make Australia safer, a claim that’s since been thankfully debunked in Parliament.

The reality of this post-fact existence is doubly confusing given that we’ve always seen lying as morally reprehensible, a sign of questionable character. Have we ever pitied anyone in pop culture as much as Seinfeld’s George Costanza, the bumbling New Yorker who pretended to chain smoke to delay his wedding? Or Mad Men’s Don Draper (sorry, Dick Whitman), the darkly glamorous ad man who basically faked his entire life? As Charles Blow writes in a September 2017 New York Times editorial, “it seems odd that we have to defend the merits of the truth, and yet we do. We must.”

If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that no one likes a liar. A June 2015 article in Atlas Obscura cited a 1960s study in which subjects were provided a list of 555 descriptors and invited to rank them on likability. Liars came in last.

If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that no one likes a liar.

Given our disdain for liars is near-universal, turns out that the practice of lying, at least, according to new research, is anything but. A June 2017 report from The Royal Society Open Science reveals our perceptions of lying, as well as the formula for spotting a liar, revolves around white, Western subjects and differs from culture to culture.

The study’s authors asked 320 participants from 17 different countries spanning European, African, South Asian and white British origins to provide genuine and fabricated statements about either their past experiences or their opinions. The research, which could help everything from forensic risk assessments to the evaluation of asylum seekers, found that the statements of white, Western liars included few first-person “I” pronouns, a common finding that’s due to the liar distancing themselves from the lie.

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Conversely, African and South Asian participants increased use of first person and decreased third-person pronouns. This could be interpreted as an attempt to distance their social group from the lie, instead.

Paul Taylor, one of the study’s researchers, believes our modern understanding of deception fails to account for the ways in which cultural differences inform how we lie.

“Our research shows that prevalent beliefs about what those changes look like are not true for all cultures,” he tells SBS.  “Research on deception has tended to use Western subject populations.

“This is problematic because culture affects the cognitive and affective factors that underpin truth-teller—liar differences. We found opposing changes in linguistic self-presentation and detail provision across cultures.”

Maybe it’s not lies we should be concerned about in a post-truth world but, rather, the facts we’re prepared to accept at face value. And who we’re likelier to believe.

Of course, we shouldn’t just accept that lying is shaped by our cultural backgrounds without also acknowledging the obvious — there’s a hierarchy when it comes to identifying who is lying and who is telling the truth. The “Inscrutable Oriental,” the on-screen trope that sees East Asians falsely represented as devious kung-fu masters or scheming dragon ladies upholds damaging stereotypes that Asians are untrustworthy. The racial empathy gap makes us less sensitive to pain experienced by other races — regardless of authenticity. And then there’s the notion that whiteness is morally virtuous, the legacy of well-meaning colonial missionaries.

Maybe it’s not lies we should be concerned about in a post-truth world but, rather, the facts we’re prepared to accept at face value. And who we’re likelier to believe.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @Neha_Kale and Instagram @nehakale.

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Liars are also more likely to say “um” and to use pronouns that distanced themselves from the action.