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Is All Fair in Love and War?

Paul Ekman is emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, the author of Telling Lies, scientific advisor to the TV series “Lie To Me”, and the director of the Paul Ekman Group, LLC.  To learn more, visit his website at

The plot of Pierre Corneille’s play The Liar raises the question of whether all is fair, proper, or even necessary to succeed in romance. Can we expect honesty in the prelude to seduction or afterwards?

Certainly, all is fair in war. Eisenhower lied to Hitler, convincing him the invasion would be in Calais, not Normandy—a ploy which was considered clever strategy, not betrayal. The Geneva Convention does not prohibit lying to the enemy. But when the arena is romance we hope to be told the truth by current or prospective lovers about their passion or fidelity, whether current or intended. Should we expect it? Doesn’t the saying “All’s fair in love and war” acknowledge that honesty does not always—or even often—occur in romance? What we hope for is not what we should expect to always get. If we are indeed forewarned that the truth may not be told in the service of achieving commitment (or at least a conquest), then deception in romance would not meet one of my two criteria—no prior notification of intent to mislead and deliberate choice to mislead a target—for distinguishing lies from the deceptions necessary for politeness or bargaining.

An actor is not a liar, but an impostor is. Even though an actor may temporarily fool us into thinking he really is King Lear, we are forewarned and know immediately afterwards that it was an act (perhaps such a good act that we wept!). Same with a magician: even though we are misled by a trick, we are forewarned it is magic and not reality. The actor and the magician deceive us, but also warn us that that is what they are going to do. (In fact, that is precisely what we, the audience, want them to do.)

Prospective lovers do not announce: “I intend to mislead you.” Carried away by his or her own infatuated desires, the person about to be seduced may be an easy target, disregarding any clues that might raise doubt. Trusting the lying lover may also be the result of a more general inclination to trust others. The default mode for most people is to trust, not to suspect. Research shows that the trusters are happier than the suspicious (even though they are vulnerable to exploitation). Lying lovers may also succeed because most people over-estimate their ability to spot liars. My research has shown that while most people believe they can spot a liar, this is in fact a very rare ability.

The second characteristic that distinguishes lies from other kinds of misinformation is that a lie involves a deliberate choice to mislead the target. And that may not only pertain to making false statements, but concealing true ones. For example, it is a prosecutable offense in 39 states not to inform a partner that you have HIV. It is not an acceptable defense that you were not asked—you have a legal obligation to inform. The only exception is if you were genuinely unaware that you had the disease. To be considered a liar you have to know you are withholding information you are obligated to reveal, or providing information you know to be untrue. Simply giving false information is not a lie if the provider thinks it is the truth.

When the target of the lie is overcome with infatuation, would that not block any doubts as to whether the prospective partner’s love is truly undying, the commitment irrevocable? And surely lovers who make such professions might, in the heat of passion, believe their own breathless overtures? If the person believes at the moment he or she professes undying love that the commitment will endure, it is not a lie, even though a detached observer might recognize that the pledge may not survive for long. After the passion cools down—which could happen in a few minutes, months or years—only then might the lover realize the commitment was not irrevocable. “I love you” is very different from “I will love you forever.” The more accurate statement often should be: “as long as I feel the way I do now I will be true to you, but I cannot guarantee how long I will feel this way.” Should we expect anyone in the grip of passion to make such precisely qualified statements? Certainly, it would not be very romantic!

In The Liar, the main character Dorante has no such scruples. His lies are deliberately aimed to achieve what he could not otherwise accomplish: “Imagine if I hadn’t lied! I’d be engaged right now to the wrong bride! You see, you need a lie with proper flavor….” The two most common reasons why people lie are either to obtain a reward not as easily or otherwise achieved (Dorante’s motive), or to avoid punishment for breaking some rule.

Dorante later says, “Liars aren’t born, Cliton. They’re fabricated.” Beautifully put, but like nearly everything else Dorante says, it may not be true. Only 5% of the people my research group has examined were capable of flawless lies. We do not know whether they are born that way, although I suspect the talents that enable them to achieve such success have a large contribution from nature, not just nurture.

Most lies succeed because the targets unwittingly collude, overlooking anything that would challenge their wish to believe the lies being offered to them. Dorante succeeds in a host of lies because those misled want to believe him. The truth may be painful, and not just in love and marriage—who wants to know that their children are using drugs, or that the employee they recommended is embezzling?

Once you learn how to spot liars—for example, being able to see a “micro” (a very brief facial expression that betrays concealed emotions)—it cannot be turned off. I warn those who I teach how to recognize micros that they will not be able to put the blinders back on, and they may not always like knowing how people really feel about them.

by Paul Ekman, PhD

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