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The Lying Conference: Uncovering truths about deception

We grow up with this notion that we should always tell the truth. But can we live without lying?  

That’s one of the questions to be explored in a day-long event, “The Lying Conference,” on Friday, November 17, from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm at Emory Conference Center. Emory’s Department of Psychology is bringing together scientists from psychology, neuroscience and anthropology — along with a leading journalist, a theater director and a professional magician — to discuss their insights into lying and deception. The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is requested.  

Topics to be covered include: The deep, evolutionary roots of lying. How children learn to tell lies. Cultural differences in lying. How we decide whether someone is trustworthy. How technology and the changing media and political landscapes are affecting our collective beliefs. The role of deception in the arts and entertainment.

“Lying is kind of a hot topic right now, with all the buzz about fake news and accusations of cover-ups and deception,” says Emory development psychologist Philippe Rochat, lead organizer of the event. “When we talk about lying, what we are indirectly trying to understand is, what is the truth? It can be a profound question.”

Science uses probabilities to approximate the truth, Rochat notes. “It’s a never-ending journey and you keep trying to get closer.”

In day-to-day interactions, we regularly negotiate the truth with one another, trying to convince others of a point of view. “People put on makeup to exaggerate their features,” Rochat says. “We amplify some things about ourselves and hide others. We make believe. We seduce.”

People can lie maliciously, in an anti-social way. Or they can tell white lies, to be polite and avoid hurting another person’s feelings.

Rochat is particularly interested in the developmental trajectory of lying. Between the ages of two and three, children begin to engage in pretend play. By around age four, when children start to have ideas about what other people are thinking, lying emerges. “They can be explicit at this stage, because they can understand that someone can be deceived,” Rochat says. “But they still cannot lie very well. They tend to leak the truth.” By the age of six or seven, he adds, “we become much better at concealing the truth and keeping a secret tight.”

Whatever the reasons for lying, one thing is clear: “We’ve evolved to lie,” Rochat says. “It’s deeply rooted in our nature and somehow important to our survival.”

Following are the seven speakers of the conference and brief summaries of their topics. 

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