Stress and the biochemistry of lying

I did not have sexual relations with that woman

In 1998, at the time of the world’s most (in)famous affaire, I was just an adolescent. It might seem bizarre, what I remember most vividly about the events —and about the huge debates it generated— were the discussions about Bill Clinton’s blinking.

What’s the matter with blinking?

People tend to blink more often when under stress and when experiencing anxiety. In turn, the audience notices these stress signals and can sense that something is off.  Blink a lot, and your audience will instinctively feel that you are uncomfortable. They will feel you might be lying.

Obviously you have to blink and there is some cleaning and lubrication of the eye that gets handled by blinking. But blink rates do vary quite a bit depending on emotional and mental states. 

For instance: The average person blinks only 15-20 times under a normal state.  But the normal blink rate for someone on TV doubles to 31-50 bpm, due to increased stress and the bright lights of a staged televised event.

Blinking and lying

Lies, just like many other things, cause stress and anxiety. If you need proof, consider thepolygraph machine (what's come to be known as the "lie detector"). They don't actually detect lies, specifically, but rather the signs of stress that accompany telling them. While stress isn't a definitive indicator of lying, it's often a good clue

Which is why, the eye blinking of the former president, where discussed as signs of telling the truth —or lies.

According to the expert lie detector Pamela Meyer, the average person lies three times within the first minute of meeting a stranger and between 10 and 200 times per day. But what is the relationship between lying and stress? Why do we stress when we aren’t being totally honest?

The biochemistry of lying

Biochemically, stress means you are in a mini-Fight or Flight mode, and the bodily systems you need to protect yourself are turned up while the systems you don’t need are turned down.

When you lie, and you are subconscious or consciously afraid you'll get caught. Hence, it creates stress. That’s fine in the short term, but those systems aren’t designed for the long run, and may have harmful effects.

Research on how lying affects health proves that lying triggers the release of stress hormones, increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Stress reduces your body's number of infection-fighting white blood cells, and, over the years, could contribute to lower-back pain, tension headaches, and a rapid heartbeat.

Anita Kelly, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, spent 10 weeks tracking the health of 110 adults and their health reactions to lies. She asked half of them to stop lying throughout the study period. The other half was not given any specific instructions about lying. In addition to taking a weekly lie-detector test, participants filled out questionnaires about their physical and mental health, as well as the quality of their relationships.

The results? Both groups lied less, but those instructed to tell the truth reported more health improvements.

"It takes a lot of negative physical and mental energy to maintain a lie," says Linda Stroh, a professor emeritus of organisational behavior at Loyola University in Chicago and author of Trust Rules: How to Tell the Good Guys From the Bad Guys. "We have to think before we answer and we have to plan what we say and do, rather than saying and doing what comes more naturally. We waste a lot of precious time covering our tracks rather than spending that time in positive ways, doing good things."

“That dress looks lovely”

“I like your new haircut;” "Dinner was great;” “I'm fine, how are you doing?”
… And other “polite lies.” What would we do with them? Does this mean we have to tell the truth at all times?

Lying cause stress. However, things are not always as simple and linear as we may hope. Lying can be useful, polite, and even necessary at certain times. Exceptions always exist, and regardless of our intentions nobody expects us to become model truth-tellers. We'll find reasons to lie that are necessary, but we will also find more that aren't. So it really depends on the situation.

You can't always tell the truth, but the more you do the happier your brain and body will be.