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Seven Lies About Lying - Part 2

By Errol Morris

August 6, 2009, 10:01 pm


This is the second and last installment of “Seven Lies About Lying.” Read the first installment.

Ricky Jay and I had begun our discussion of lying and deception with the story of Joseph, specifically with (Genesis 37:29-34) [3]. It’s worth a closer look. (Here is a summary.) Joseph is the 11th and favorite son of Jacob. His father had made for him a magnificent coat — a coat of many colors. Several of his brothers out of jealousy decide to kill him. Reuben, the oldest, convinces the other brothers to throw him in a pit instead. He is then sold as a slave to a band of traveling merchants. The brothers kill a goat, cover the coat with blood and then show the coat to their father. (This version is from the Blue Letter Bible, but I have also included in the footnotes the King James and several other translations.)

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes

30 and returned to his brothers, and said, “The lad is gone; and I, where shall I go?”

31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, and killed a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood;

32 and they sent the long robe with sleeves and brought it to their father, and said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.”

33 And he recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.”

34 Then Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.

In “Joseph’s Tunic” (ca. 1630), Velazquez has seized on one moment from the story (Genesis 37:33-34).

Dan Mooney for Errol Morris

The brothers’ return with Jacob’s coat. But is it a lie or a deception? Or both? Joseph’s brothers show the torn (and bloody) coat to Jacob, their father, who jumps to the conclusion that his son has been killed by wild animals. “It’s my son’s robe; a wild beast has devoured him.” But the Bible doesn’t say that the brothers actually lie to their father. Rather they deceive their father by showing him the bloody coat and their father draws the incorrect inference, namely that Joseph is “without doubt torn to pieces” [4]. The brothers’ claim is, of course, disingenuous at best: “This we have found; see whether it’s your son’s robe or not.” But the brothers know it’s Joseph’s robe. And they haven’t exactly found it. They “manufactured” it.

In the Velazquez painting, there is no lie. No linguistic misdirection. Just five of the brothers deceiving Jacob, the father, by displaying Joseph’s torn and bloody coat. It is the “ocular proof” that Othello demands from Iago. And like Desdemona’s handkerchief it leads to a false inference and to an error, although not quite as tragic as the error made by Othello.

Velazquez’s interest in naturalism, the reddish-brown of the dried blood, focuses our attention on the brothers’ attempt to deceive Jacob. The robe is not that bloody. Jacob merely jumps to the wrong conclusion that Joseph has been killed by wild animals. Two brothers seem actively involved in the deception. Two seem hidden in the background, and another stands with his back to us, hiding his face from his father and from us.

Contrast the Velazquez with a Bible illustration of the same scene produced a couple of hundred years before “Joseph’s Tunic.” It is from “Speculum humanae salvationis” of Cologne, ca. 1450. [5] The hyperbolic treatment of the blood makes it much easier to believe that Joseph was actually devoured by wild animals. It also makes it much easier to believe that Jacob was deceived by the brothers. With all that blood there was less of a reason to lie. Graphic horror instead of the subtlety of “Joseph’s Tunic.” There is no academic distance here, as there is in the Velazquez.

Den Haag, Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum, 10 B 34, 26v. ( From “Speculum humanae salvationis” of Cologne, ca. 1450.

These two images have much to teach us about the relationship between deception, lying and the truth. But they also teach us that deception depends on visual clues, as much as it depends on language. Just what (if anything) do the brothers say to Jacob? Perhaps the say a lot. Perhaps they say nothing other than what is recorded in the Bible. Is it a lie? Or just a deception?

We think we know what a lie is, but the moment we try to define it, we run into trouble. Take the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. (A dictionary definition in an essay should be seen as a red flag, or at the very least, an amber cautionary light, but please bear with me.) According to the O.E.D., a lie is “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The O.E.D. complicates matters by telling us that to deceive is “to cause to believe what is false, to mislead as to a matter of fact, to lead into error” [emphasis mine] [6]. It also tells us that “in modern use, the word [“lie”] is normally a violent expression of moral reprobation, which in polite conversation tends to be avoided, the synonyms falsehood and untruth being often substituted as relatively euphemistic.” This is where the trouble begins. Are “falsehood” and “untruth” really synonyms for “lying?” Is lying an attempt merely to mislead or an attempt to get someone to believe that which is false? Or is lying used in two different ways? Here, I believe the O.E.D. is merely reinforcing a standard confusion. I would argue that all that is needed for lying are beliefs about what is true or false — not knowledge of what is true or false [7].

The fact that there are these two senses of lying gets us into trouble. When we focus on intent, the goal of lying seems utterly clear. When we focus on truth and falsity, we are often led into error — to the seven lies about lying that follow [8]. Each of these seven principles about lying, often taken to be true, I believe are false. Whether we are lying about lying or merely self-deceived about lying, I will leave for the reader to decide. (Please be assured that I am not discussing the morality of lying, simply misconceptions that we have about it.)

1. Lying is the opposite of telling the truth. It is often assumed that when we lie, we know the truth — that our brains are reality recorders or truth recorders. (This idea is similar to the naïve view of photography — namely, that a photograph provides a truthful copy of reality. And to answer true or false questions about reality all we need to do is read the answers off of a photographic image.) But we can think something is false, without it being false. And we can think something is true, without it being true. Here’s an example of how you can lie and tell the truth at the same time. If you think Abraham Lincoln is alive and you go around telling people that he is dead, you’re lying, but what you are speaking is the truth. The idea that the brain is a truth recorder persists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary [9]. The phenomenon of false memories, the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and so on all emphasize our ability to stray from the truth and to be unaware of it. They all speak to the fact that what we believe to be true and what is true are two very different things.

2. Lying is telling a falsehood. This is the flip-side of No. 1, and it leads to the preposterous idea that truth and falsehood can be determined with a machine. Lie detectors — from the polygraph to Charles McQuiston’s voice stress analyzer to brain scans — depend on the view that truth can be recovered from the brain or the body [10] [11]. As such, they are routinely used to determine whether someone has committed a crime. But if someone who has committed a crime believes he is innocent, then his false claim of innocence wouldn’t be caught by the lie detector. The machine, at best, does not determine whether a statement is true or false, but only whether there is a disparity between what is believed and what is communicated to others. [12] I have often wondered about standards of proof — what one person versus another person will accept as proof. Say, a quantum field theorist versus a reporter for The National Enquirer. In this Enquirer article, Julio Platner, a businessman, reports on his abduction by aliens. But did it really happen? The Enquirer is clearly concerned about this very question.

To further check Platner’s story, The Enquirer had a tape of his statements analyzed using a Psychological Stress Evaluator (PSE), a device used by more than 300 law enforcement agencies to determine if someone is telling the truth by measuring the stress in his voice. Declared Charles McQuiston, a former U.S. intelligence officer who coinvented the device, Platner’s voice is completely stress free. “He’s telling the truth — no doubt about it.” Added Dr. Adolfo Pizarro, the physician Platner saw after his abduction, “In my professional opinion, there was an extraction of blood or some material. I have treated him for six years and can declare that Platner has always been calm, sound and sane. He’s well-respected and an ideal citizen.”

Platner’s voice is “completely stress free,” but that doesn’t mean (even if you buy into McQuiston’s argument) he was abducted by aliens. It only means that Platner believed he had been abducted by aliens. But what if one of the aliens had warned Platner that he would be very sorry if he ever revealed his abduction to another earth-creature? Wouldn’t that create “stress in his voice?” And given McQuiston’s criteria wouldn’t that mean he had not been abducted. (From the drawing Platner provided, it seems as though he had fried eggs for breakfast.)

The National Enquirer

3. Lying leads to narrative inconsistencies. The common wisdom is that people whose stories change are telling lies. But it’s often liars (not truth-tellers) who are able to tell consistent stories. They have their stories down. They practice them, plan them and achieve complete consistency in every retelling. Those of us who are trying to tell the truth (or at least recalling memories about what we believe to be the truth) probably will provide inconsistent narratives. Memory is, of course, not infallible. We casually rely on it but often don’t realize how a version of events based on memory may change. To make matters worse, we often impose a spurious narrative consistency on our beliefs so that they accord with others. Sadly, when there is a contest between the facts and our narratives about what we have experienced, our narratives invariably win. People repeat narratives not observations [13]. Sir Walter Scott wrote, “O’ what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.” (Marmion, Canto VI, XVII) But why should we think that the truth is less tangled than a lie? Scott also wrote, although it is rarely quoted, perhaps because it isn’t part of a cautionary tale, “I cannot tell how the truth may be; I say the tale as it was said to me.”

4. Lying can never be justified. There is the extreme view that lying is always bad, and hence can never be justified. The philosopher Immanuel Kant insisted that one should always tell the truth. It was linked to his “categorical imperative,” Kant’s version of the Golden Rule. Would you like others to lie to you? Then don’t lie to others [14]. Thomas Jefferson, in a similar vein, wrote to his nephew, “Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition, that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties tenfold; and those, who pursue these methods, get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him” [15].

In the face of these moral prohibitions, is the implacable fact that lying is endlessly justified. Often it takes the form of the argument that the ends justify the means. We generally suppose ourselves to be moral creatures and when an apparent example of our immorality appears we find a way to rationalize that behavior. Early commentators on lies and lying recognized this. St. Augustine, who became one of the first taxonomers of prevarication, provided a hierarchy of really rotten lies, sort of acceptable lies, indifferent lies and beneficial lies. He was even willing to admit that lying was sometimes not so bad [16]. Of course, the taxonomy of lies leads to the slippery slope, where various justifications are brought to bear on various ethical problems, including lying. But who decides which justifications are acceptable and which are not? If justifications of our actions were scrupulously disallowed, how would we be able to function?

5. Lying will be punished. Perhaps. But not as often as truth-telling. Lying effectively in many situations is generally superior than telling the truth, because often we have to search our minds for the truth, whereas a good lie can be easier to produce (though of course caution is indicated if the lie can be easily unmasked). Invariably a skillful liar makes a calculation about his chances of being exposed and avoids situations where a lie can be revealed. Lying is punished only if it is detected. A more reasonable assessment would be that ineffective and unskillful lying is severely punished. No one is held in greater contempt than an unskilled liar.

6. Lying is avoidable. Mark Twain, in his essay “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” realized the importance of skillful lying, “No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted.” Twain goes on to make an event stronger point: that lying is unavoidable. “No fact is more firmly established than that lying is a necessity of our circumstances — the deduction that it is then a Virtue goes without saying. No virtue can reach its highest usefulness without careful and diligent cultivation – therefore, it goes without saying that this one ought to be taught in the public schools — even in the newspapers” [17].

7. Lying is a threat to the truth. No. Lying and the truth can exist side-by-side. In No. 1 and in 2, I have tried to disconnect lying from truth and falsehood. We lie based on what we believe — I would also like to remind readers that all sorts of lies have been told throughout history — billions upon billions of them. (A conservative estimate.) But the real problem is not lies but people believing them. If people weren’t so ridiculously credulous, lying would be a far more risky enterprise. I have already mentioned that lies are about things we believe, not things we know. Here’s one compelling reason. If lies are told to someone about what they already know, they wouldn’t be effective. If I know something, then it is extremely difficult for someone to lie to me about it. I know that I am writing this essay in Cambridge, Mass. You could tell me otherwise, but I wouldn’t believe you. I’d just think you were a liar. I know that I’m in Cambridge, Mass. Period.

Lies are effective because we are insecure about many of our beliefs and are quite vulnerable to the suggestion that those beliefs might be false. And they work because we might be predisposed to believe them already. Othello doesn’t know that Desdemona is faithful. Indeed, he fears the opposite. Iago is able to lie to Othello precisely because Othello’s passions are enflamed by jealousy and it is possible for him to imagine Iago’s claims as the truth.

And there is another dirty little secret about lying — in the pursuit of truth, some lying is invariably necessary. Kant, who was searching for some universal moral principle, believed that if everybody lied the world would fall into shambles. Nobody would ever trust another person. But everybody does lie, the world does function after a fashion, and it is not at all clear that, if lying were eliminated, the world would be a better place. My hunch is that if we ever find so-called intelligent life on other planets or in other galaxies, they will be adept liars, too.

I asked Ricky Jay about a world without lying.

RICKY JAY: When you’re talking about Kant and trust, it made me think of one of the ways I tell people about the con game. I say, “You wouldn’t want to live in a world where you can’t be conned, because if you were, you would be living in a world with no trust. That’s the price you pay for trust, is being conned.” And it’s very easy to substitute being lied to. Right?

ERROL MORRIS: Tell me more.

RICKY JAY: Well, it’s hard to reduce these things down to a sentence or two. But somebody once asked me about that. It was one of these things that I blurted out in an on-air interview, and then afterwards thought about it, and realized it is legitimately what I feel. It’s the price you pay. Yes, you have Bernie Madoff, but if everyone you knew spoke the truth, it would be almost as terrible as if everyone you knew lied.

We navigate through a farrago of lies, deceptions and self-deceptions. But they do not prevent us from seeking the truth, from looking outside our mental prisons and trying to uncover the true nature of the world that surrounds us.

“Joseph Being Sold by His Brothers” (from the Casa Bartholdy fresco cycle), an 1817 painting by Johann Friedrich Overbeck, depicts the underlying reality of what “actually” happened to Joseph. The sons tell their father, “This have we found: see now whether it is your son’s coat or not.” But they didn’t find the coat, and Joseph wasn’t eaten by wild animals. He was sold into slavery, as seen in the Overbeck. A cropped image from Wikipedia provides only a detail from the complete mural. The full mural shows more of the story of deception: in the foreground, the well into which Joseph was thrown and, on the extreme left, the goat that was sacrificed [18]. The Bible story contains a curious admixture of lies, deceptions, self-deceptions and false inferences. As such it provides a good object lesson for real life. The two paintings – the Velazquez (1630) and the Overbeck (1817) – are tidy bookends to any story about lying. They portray the lie and the underlying reality that the lie is designed to hide.

Wikimedia Commons / Dan Mooney for Errol Morris / Art Resource “Joseph Sold By His Brothers” Johann Friedrich Overbeck, 1817

Of course, there are terribly injurious lies — lies with intent to do harm, to hurt and to betray. But once again truth and falsehood have little to do with it. William Blake wrote in “Auguries of Innocence”:

A truth that’s told with bad intent,

Beats all the lies you can invent.


I would like to thank Charles Silver, who has read repeated drafts and contributed many central ideas. And my wife, Julia Sheehan. I would also like to thank my researchers Ann Petrone and Julie Fischer, who read the drafts and made many helpful suggestions. And Ricky Jay who kindly consented to talk with me about lying and deception; also, for the use of the handbills and posters from his extensive collections.

Finally, I would like to urge readers to contribute their own examples of lies, lying and deception, by leaving a comment on this post.


Sissela Bok, “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,” second edition (New York, 1999) An updated version of St. Augustine.

Ricky Jay, “Jay’s Journal of Anomalies,” (New York, 2003)

A brilliant compendium of oddities that gets better with every re-reading.

David Lykken, “Tremor in the Blood: Use and Abuses of the Lie Detector” (New York, 1998) The standard reference work on lie detection.

Margaret Talbot, “Duped: Can Brain Scans Uncover Lies?” The New Yorker, July 2, 2007. An excellent history of modern ideas about lie detection. Alas, she doesn’t bring up the central argument against lie detectors (and fMRIs, in particular) that neither truth or falsehood is inside the brain, and hence cannot be recovered with a machine. Any machine.

Mark Singer, “Secrets of the Magus” (pdf), The New Yorker. A profile of Ricky Jay.

Mark Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying.” An 1885 address to the Historical and Antiquarian Society of Hartford, Conn. Twain defends skillful lying, which he declares to be “the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man’s best and surest friend.”


[3] The story of Joseph is from Genesis. It contains several examples of deception and lying. Genesis (37:29-34): Blue Letter Bible – Revised Standard Version. 1996-2009.

[4] Other Translations:

King James Version: And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no.

World English Bible:

They took the coat of many colors, and they brought it to their father, and said, “We have found this. Examine it, now, whether it is your son’s coat or not.”


Sending some to carry it to their father, and to say: This we have found: see whether it be thy son’s coat, or not.

Webster’s Bible Translation:

And they sent the coat of many colors, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it is thy son’s coat or not.

[5] Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, The Hague, from “Speculum humanae salvationis” of Cologne (manuscript “Den Haag, MMW, 10 B 34″),

[6] A number of writers have suggested that lying is not linguistic. I would beg to differ, as can be seen in my discussion with Ricky Jay. There can be no lying without language. To lie, you must start with a statement that you believe to be true or false. Deception, on the other hand, does not require language. You can deceive without words. The story of Joseph, insofar as the brothers present the bloody robe to Jacob, and Jacob makes the incorrect inference ( “…a wild beast has devoured him” ), is about deception rather than out-and-out lying.

[7] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy acknowledges these difficulties and proceeds to provide a couple of dozen definitions, examples and counter-examples of lying. The end result, how-ever, is to make the overwhelmed reader wonder whether lies and lying have any coherent meaning at all. Instead of proliferating definitions – not unlike a nuclear arms race – I would like to point out that we have a number of serious confusions about lying and try to clarify them.

[8] The number “seven” has a well-established provenance with respect to lying. Shakespeare in “As You Like It” speaks of “a lie seven times removed.”

Touchstone: Upon a lie seven times removed: — bear your body more seeming, Audrey: — as thus, sir. I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier’s beard: he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was: this is called ‘the retort courteous.’ If I sent him word again, it was not well cut, he would send me word, he cut it to please himself: this is called the ‘quip modest.’ If again, it was not well cut, he disabled my judgment: this is called the ‘reply churlish.’ If again, it was not well cut, he would answer, I spake not true: this is called the ‘reproof valiant:’ if again, it was not well cut, he would say, I lie: this is called the ‘countercheck quarrelsome’: and so to the ‘lie circumstantial,’ and the ‘lie direct.’

[9] We have audio discontinuities, particularly those in speech, which can interfere and distort our reality. And many cognitive discontinuities include semantic, topic and criterial ones. This is also represented on film, where we miss frames of information. This problem is particularly pronounced with foreign films where experiments have shown that we experience a discontinuity in understanding a film when our eyes shift from the subtitles to the picture itself. The most common discontinuity is the saccade, the discontinuous jumping from place to place of our eyes. We don’t even notice it, thinking our view of reality is continuous, just as we are unaware of the blind spot in our eyes where we cannot see a thing.

[10] There are many different kinds of lie detectors. There are lie detectors that depend on autonomic responses (blood pressure and skin conductivity), like polygraphs, and others that depend on the measurement of brain activity — specifically, by measuring cerebral blood flow. There are even a number of new corporations devoted to this methodology — No Lie MRI (a catchy rhyme) and the Cephos Corporation.

Their Web site states under the banner, New Truth Verification System, “No Lie MRI, Inc. provides unbiased methods for the detection of deception and other information stored in the brain.” This is O.K. as far as it goes, but it is followed by the even stronger claim, “The technology used by No Lie MRI represents the first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history!” The investigator is (essentially) looking inside the subject’s head. The idea is based on the premise that lying takes more effort than truth telling and hence requires more blood flow. As a result of this increased blood flow areas of the brain “light-up” in fMRI scans. I don’t doubt that areas of the brain light up and that fact may mean something. But, once again, fMRIs [functional MRIs] do not get around the fact that the brain is not a reality recorder nor a truth recorder, namely that reality isn’t “up there” to be re-covered in the first place. And so, it’s hard to look at these new high-tech brain scans as anything more than updated versions of phrenology.

[11] “India’s Novel Use of Brain Scans in Courts Is Debated,” The New York Times, September 14, 2008.

[12] Galileo believed that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa. Is anyone suggesting that they should have used a lie detector to decide whether he was telling us the truth? The truth of Galileo’s ideas hinge on the evidence presented for his beliefs (or on our unsuccessful attempts to falsify them), not on our ability to scan his brain. It’s not what is inside someone’s head that matters, it’s what happens in reality. Two separate things are at stake here: detecting lying and determining the truth. Clearly, it is possible to detect one without determining the other.

[13] Margaret Talbot writes in The New Yorker, “A liar’s testimony is often more persuasive than a truth teller’s. Liars are more likely to tell a story in chronological order, whereas honest people often present accounts in an improvised jumble. Similarly, according to DePaulo and Bond [Bella DePaulo, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Charles Bond, Jr., of Texas Christian University], subjects who spontaneously corrected themselves, or said that there were details that they couldn’t recall, were more likely to be truthful than those who did not—though, in the real world, memory lapses arouse suspicion.”

[14] Kant wrote, “There are therefore, ethical rules which impose a plain obligation and render the action obligatory – as for instance “Thou shalt not lie.” (Kant, Lectures on Ethics); also “…to be truthful (honest) in all declarations is therefore a sacred unconditional command of reason, and not to be limited by any expediency.” (Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, Appendix I), and “I cannot wish for a general law to establish lying be-cause no one would any longer believe me, or I should be paid in the same coin.”

[15] “The Life and Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Including All of His Important Utterances on Public Questions, from State Papers and from his Private Correspondence.”

[16] St. Augustine lists eight types of lies. “The first type of lie is a deadly one which should be avoided and shunned from afar, namely, that which is uttered in the teaching of religion, and to the telling of which no one should be led under any condition. The second is that which injures somebody unjustly: such a lie as helps no one and harms someone. The third is that which is beneficial to one person while it harms another, although the harm does not produce physical defilement. The fourth is the lie which is told solely for the pleasure of lying and deceiving, that is, the real lie. The fifth type is that which is told from a desire to please others in smooth discourse. When these have been avoided and rejected, a sixth kind of lie follows which harms no one and benefits some person, as, for instance, when a person, knowing that another’s money is to be taken away unjustly, answers the questioner untruthfully and says that he does not know where the money is. The seventh type is that which is harmful to no one and beneficial to some person, with the exception of the case where a judge is questioning, as happens when a person lies because he is unwilling to betray a man sought for capital punishment, that is, not only a just and innocent person but even a criminal, because it belongs to Christian discipline never to despair of the conversion of anybody and never to block the opportunity for repentance…. The eighth type of lie which is harmful to no one and beneficial to the extent that it protects someone from physical defilement, at least, from that defilement which we have mentioned above.” (Augustine, “On Lying,” Treatises on Various Subjects)

[17] Mark Twain: On the Decay of the Art of Lying.

[18] Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Joseph and His Brothers,

Neoclassicism and Romanticism

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