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Constant fibs can ruin relationships, jobs and social life

| Monday, Oct. 1, 2001

Aristotle said that liars, when they speak the truth, are not believed.

That consequence can lead to failed relationships, lost jobs, social ostracism and, in extreme cases, incarceration.

Even faced with those negative outcomes, many people see nothing wrong with lying. They will even lie about their lies.

It's a trait that starts early in life.

'It's highly unlikely to have an adult start lying,' said family therapist and Lori Iezzi, whose practice in Greensburg specializes in children and family.

She has counseled youngsters who begin lying at a very early age.

'It worries parents when it starts at age 3 and they wonder where it's going to lead to,' she said. 'But children don't develop the concept between truth and lying until they are 6 or 7. When I work with families, I tend to look at what's going on in the family system and within the child's peer group, and then I target the behavior.'

Experts have a number of theories about why children start to lie.

Douglas Ramm, a Greensburg psychologist who has worked with juvenile offenders for 25 years, believes parents play an important role in a child falling into 'habitual lying.'

'Pathological lying is a misnomer,' he said. 'If you are talking about somebody who is a pathological liar, like part of a sociopathic personality disorder, then the dynamics of what goes into that are a little complex. But there are a lot of people who are habitual liars who are not sociopaths.'

Habitual lying, he said, is a moral issue, a matter of choice that typically begins when a child is able to benefit from telling a lie. Getting away with it is a positive reinforcement.

'It can be that parents don't want to deal with these issues,' Ramm said. 'They may operate on the assumption that their child would never lie, that the child is a good kid who would never do anything bad. Or the parent doesn't want to deal with the issue because in contemporary society, there's an attitude that there's nothing wrong with lying.'

He attributes that sentiment to social changes that started in the 1960s and in the 'advent of psychology and psychiatry as ways of making sense of human behavior.'

Before that, he said, 'we were pretty much operating on human nature that came from Judeo-Christian tradition. Within that approach, you looked at behavior in terms of what was right or wrong. One of the effects of moving toward looking at behavior in terms of normal or abnormal is that you fail to recognize that behavior has consequences, some of them good and some of them bad.'

Ramm tells his young clients that they hurt other people when they lie.

'But the bottom line of lying is that the person who is typically injured most is the person who is lying because people perceive them as liars and are unwilling to take anything they say as the truth,' he said. 'People give up on them.'

Yet adolescents often react with a 'smirk or outright laugh' when he connects their lies with morality.

'It's become evident to me that they view these concepts of right and wrong as something similar to Santa Claus or the Easter bunny,' Ramm said. 'At some point in their childhood, they decided that it was just as unrealistic to believe these things as it was to believe in Santa Claus, and they therefore just don't make use of the concept of right or wrong in their decision making process.'

Bill Hahn, a psychologist with Behavior Management Counselors of Greensburg, believes that lying is both a moral and mental health issue.

'I see a lot of children and adolescents who try to protest and get out of their lies even when it is so obviously blatant,' he said. 'There can be a lot of reasons for that, but I think that most adolescent liars just don't have a sense of responsibility. They don't have a good understanding of cause and effect.'

Laura Hawkins, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Westmoreland County, considers the behavior difficult to define.

'It can show up as one of the symptoms of a borderline personality disorder where the person can experience dissociative patterns in the kind of information that they provide to people,' she said. 'They can create a kind of scenario around relationships, dramas about those relationships that are sometimes done by distorting the truth.'

Dr. Vito DonGiovani, director of psychology at Torrance State Hospital, sees lying present in a variety of behaviors.

'The narcissistic person believes that he is much better than everybody else and no one can tell him anything,' he said.

Because that attitude may be rooted in low self-esteem and feeling unloved, the person often acts as if he has all the answers.

'To keep that alive, he has to lie,' DonGiovani said. 'It's a grandiose feeling of self-importance.'

Pretenders invent careers, degrees, families and false backgrounds. They may be real professionals who distort their qualifications, or they may be able to pull off roles, like being a doctor or teacher, with no qualifications at all.

'There's also the antisocial personality disorder, the bad guys who think the rules don't apply to them,' DonGiovani said. 'Telling the truth doesn't matter. They think, 'Whatever gets me what I want.''

Their reckless behavior may put them behind bars where the truth still isn't important. 'Prisons are full of people who didn't do the crime,' DonGiovani said. 'It's always someone else.'

He believes that patterns of lying may originate when children try to avoid conflict with their parents. By lying, they can get what they want, which is often love and approval. They may think, 'I have to lie for Mom to love me.'

One positive way that parents can deal with those needs is to acknowledge the lie without causing a major conflict.

'Parents can ask, 'What do you think I believe about that?' and then explain what they do believe,' DonGiovani said. 'And the child should still get the consequences of the lie.'

Then, he added, the parent should assure the child, 'I can love you even though I don't trust you.'

Changing patterns of lying is not easy, DonGiovani noted, because there's usually very little guilt involved.

'When most people lie, they get a feeling of remorse and can deal with their lying,' he said. 'But compulsive liars don't have the guilt that can force them to change. They lose relationships, they lose jobs and they just move on.'

He compared the likelihood of their recovery to that of an alcoholic who 'has to hit bottom' before going straight.

'They have to face what happens and one day make the decision to stop lying,' DonGiovani said.

Hahn thinks people can be 'taught not to' lie. 'I have to believe that all behavior is changeable,' he said.

Ramm contends that a liar first has to understand that the behavior is connected with what's right and what's wrong.

'From a traditional psychiatric and psychological point of view, unless (lying) gets properly framed as a moral issue and something self-defeating, the likelihood of turning it around, in my opinion, is minimal,' he said.

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