A Classification of Lies and Confabulations

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A statement constitutes a lie only if at least one of the interlocutors knows it to be untrue, yet insists or assumes that it is true. If all the parties involved in the exchange know that the statement is false or if none of them know whether it is false or true, then it is fiction or an act of faith.

Lies are about facts or about states of being. Lies that pertain to facts cannot be rendered true by widespread consensus. But with regards to lies about states of being, if the parties agree something to be the truth their agreement can make it true (alter its truth value). This is so because statements about states of being are dependent on social context.

Lies either prompt action or inhibit it. Sometimes, actions taken can convert the lie into a truth (self-fulfilling lie).

There are eight types of lies:

  1. Utilitarian: a lie that is intended to accomplish something, a lie that is goal-oriented, a lie whose structure and content are planned to promote or inspire changes conducive to the furtherance of the liar’s aims and aspirations;
  2. Smokescreen: a lie whose purpose is to obscure, conceal, or remove true information and thus mislead others (common in espionage or military operations);
  3. Compassionate: a lie that is geared towards sparing other people’s feelings, catering to their sensitivities and vulnerabilities, and allowing them to save face and avoid shame and embarrassment. Most white lies are compassionate and empathic;
  4. Ceremonial: lies and dissimulations whose function is to establish a pecking order by demonstrating reverence and glossing over facts and behaviors that inconveniently contravene the accepted hierarchy. Manners and etiquette are highly-elaborate forms of ceremonial lying;
  5. Compensatory: lies that are used to disguise the oft-humiliating fact that we do not know the truth or can’t remember it. Lies of this type amount to fiction, but with most of the interlocutors being unaware of it;
  6. Confabulatory: intricate lies that weave a fabric of alternate reality which is frequently an exaggerated form of the liar’s traits, conduct, and personal history (though it can, of course, be completely unrelated to anything real in the confabulator’s life).
  7. Inferential: fallacious conclusions or extrapolations based on true assumptions or statements. Most logical fallacies are inferential lies.
  8. Hybrid: lies that contain markers of an occult truth or pathways to true information, allowing its recipients to “read between the lines”. Hybrid lies are common in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

A study of confabulation in pathological narcissism:

Confabulations are an important part of life. They serve to heal emotional wounds or to prevent ones from being inflicted in the first place. They prop-up the confabulator’s self-esteem, regulate his (or her) sense of self-worth, and buttress his (or her) self-image. They serve as organizing principles in social interactions.

Father’s wartime heroism, mother’s youthful good looks, one’s oft-recounted exploits, erstwhile alleged brilliance, and past purported sexual irresistibility – are typical examples of white, fuzzy, heart-warming lies wrapped around a shriveled kernel of truth.

But the distinction between reality and fantasy is rarely completely lost. Deep inside, the healthy confabulator knows where facts end and wishful thinking takes over. Father acknowledges he was no war hero, though he did his share of fighting. Mother understands she was no ravishing beauty, though she may have been attractive. The confabulator realizes that his recounted exploits are overblown, his brilliance exaggerated, and his sexual irresistibility a myth.

Such distinctions never rise to the surface because everyone – the confabulator and his audience alike – have a common interest to maintain the confabulation. To challenge the integrity of the confabulator or the veracity of his confabulations is to threaten the very fabric of family and society. Human intercourse is built around such entertaining deviations from the truth.

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Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love, and runs the website Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited. Sam has served as the author of the Personality Disorders topic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder topic, the Verbal and Emotional Abuse topic, and the Spousal Abuse and Domestic Violence topic, Suite101.
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