Lying (a lot) can affect your self-esteem. health and wellness

In 2020, three researchers from the University of Twente (Netherlands) set out to shed light on an issue full of questions about how lying affects our self-esteem. Does knowingly lying affect the evaluations we all make about ourselves? Does this make us feel like worse people? Does it leave us indifferent? “We found it interesting and paradoxical that, for a behavior that most of us consider unethical, it happens so often,” says Marielle Stell, co-author of a series of four studies published last December by the British Psychological Society. cost of lying,

Research links dishonesty and self-perception in a variety of contexts, analyzing white and bad, serious and petty, present and past lies. Its participants recalled specific contexts where deception typically occurs, such as at a job interview, with a friend asking our opinion about his new haircut. He recalled personal situations with immense emotional burden in which he faced the dilemma of whether or not to tell the truth. The 200 individuals in the sample also recorded in writing the lies they told during their daily lives.

After this mixing of scenarios, the data turned out to be conclusive: lying, on average, leads to a significant decline in self-esteem, measured according to the famous test – still in common use – developed by the American sociologist Morris in the 1960s. Was prepared. Rosenberg.

search cost of lying This is in line with other similar findings. “There is very strong evidence that lying is associated with poor mental health,” says Christian Hart, co-author of the study. big liar ,big liarEdited by the American Psychological Association, without Spanish edition) and Director of the Human Deception Laboratory at Texas Woman’s University (USA).

After years of interviewing thousands of individuals, Hart and his colleagues have concluded that avoiding the truth results, above all, in increased anxiety. Especially when lies are used systematically and with selfish intentions. “This kind of life forces you to constantly calculate, cover early lies with later lies, evaluate what the other person knows or doesn’t know. This represents a huge cognitive load that triggers our stress levels,” explains Hart.

lying as a lifestyle

A meta-analysis released in 2015 by researchers at Harvard and Berkeley universities (both in the United States) synthesized the effects of lying on our bodies. According to studies, this leads to a marked increase in heart rate and the secretion of cortisol (the so-called stress hormone). In the opposite sense, honesty produces higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of well-being and relaxation.

“Many people write to me in despair, confessing that their lies are destroying their lives.”

Christian Hart, Director of the Human Deception Laboratory at Texas Woman’s University

In another study led by Anita Kelly of the University of Notre Dame (USA) in 2012, a group of people were asked not to lie for 10 weeks. For many people, this restriction means not exaggerating daily accomplishments or making false excuses for small mistakes, such as being late for an appointment. Compared to the control group, which received no instructions, non-liars reported significantly less stress, sadness, and other negative emotions at the end of the experiment.

For Christian Miller, director of the Honesty Project at Wake Forest University (USA) and author of works in which he has addressed the psychological consequences of lying (and other dishonest acts such as theft or fraud), only significant damage can be detected. Is. Among people who abuse the truth on a regular basis. “They’re about 5% of the population,” he says. For the pathological liar, Miller explains, “His reputation, the trust that other people have in him, the fear of getting caught is constantly at stake. This can trigger and perpetuate severe anxiety symptoms.” Like a Pile of Lies in crescendo Which ultimately turns the truth into a constant threat.

According to research published in 2017 in the journal, this may also happen Nature,The reverse phenomenon: a gradual reduction in the stress associated with lying. In a study conducted by researchers at University College London, activity in the amygdala – the part of the brain that sends information about fear to our nervous system – was seen to decrease as the number and scope of lies told increased. participants. Stell warns of the limitations of research that is thus conducted in the laboratory, under control, by hypothetically recreating real conditions. He stressed, “People can take it as a game and react very differently than in their normal lives.”

In any case, there seems to be a logic behind what Hart calls “the habit of lying.” And he draws an analogy with exposure therapy, which is used to expose patients with anxiety or phobic disorders to confront their fears. He says, “If someone is afraid of heights and comes in contact with them, at first his heart beats, he sweats… but gradually the feeling of danger subsides.” ” In his opinion, something similar happens with some repeat liars: “The fear of being discovered and the reputational damage it causes diminishes when the subject realizes that he is getting his way. Is.”

fear of abandonment

Another source of concern for the dishonest person lies in the complex area of ​​guilt. Miller estimates, “Moral condemnation of one’s own behavior is to be expected.” Hart, for his part, is not so sure. “Many people, perhaps most people, are adept at justifying their lies. They distort their dishonest actions to make themselves appear as good people,” he says. This researcher exemplifies this dynamic with the case of an unfaithful man with whom she had an affair a long time ago. “He had many reasons to defend himself: the truth would hurt my wife, it’s not worth it, the other relationship is not important… He came to tell me that he felt like lying to his wife for her well-being. Had been.”

Beyond the so-called white lies that appease guilt, there are also individuals before whom normal moral ideas are not valid. People with psychopathic traits are, in some ways, immune to the emotional damage of lying. They do not have to suffer any pain or embarrassment because of their dishonesty. Hart encourages us not to confuse the pathological liar with the psychopath who lies habitually. “The former retain the capacity for empathy and remorse, though to a different degree.” Hart continues, “He seeks to attract attention by inventing heroic incidents in which he has taken part or by claiming that he is a friend of some famous person.” But unlike the psychopath, he may suffer greatly from the huge farce being created around him. “Many people write to me in despair, confessing that their lies are destroying their lives,” says Hart.

According to psychiatrist Angel Rule, lies and guilt can sometimes harm each other. Rule noted his patients who had “emotional wounds from episodes of abandonment, which activated guilt in them at that time.” This makes them more likely to “lie to avoid being abandoned again.” Which, precisely, reactivates “the guilt they felt after the abandonment”. Like a vicious circle in which an ideological self-protection mechanism only makes things worse, thus giving even more power to the carousel of lies and discomfort.

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