The “truth-bias,” the expectation that, normally, one tells the truth, is proposed to be the cornerstone of humanity (Bok 1978). Yet, it is the skill of displacement – speaking of things which are not present – and thus also the ability to deceive that is the basis of human language (Aitchison 1996). A society of truthfulness, to highlight the downside of truthtelling, would be a society of hurtfulness. The discursive status of an act of deception has been the subject of some considerable debate. It focuses upon questions: (1) What is the act of deception? (2) What are its kinds? (3) What is its discursive and social status?
Discussions of the definition of an act of deception focus upon truthfulness of the proposition of the act and the beliefs of the speaker and of the addressee. There is widespread consensus that falsity (or other misrepresentation) of the act’s proposition, whether explicit or implicit, is not sufficient for the act to be deceptive. Thus, commonly, an act of deception is held to be one in which the speaker conveys information with the intention to induce false beliefs in the addressee. There are, however, attempts to reposition deception in terms of accuracy of the speaker’s beliefs (Ng & Bradac 1993), covert violation of Gricean maxims – i.e., covert failure to be truthful, to say as much as needed, or to be relevant or clear (McCornack 1992) – or manipulation (Galasinski 2000).
There are many classifications of acts of deception. Regardless of the actual categories, classifications are based on a number of axes of comparison. Acts of deception can be monologic or dialogic (as in covert evasion where the speaker pretends to answer the question, e.g., A: Do you want a tougher regime in these secure places? B: I want a regime that helps them [inmates] face up to their responsibilities . . . ); they can be active or passive (by withholding a message); they can be done via explicit or implicit proposition (implicatures, presuppositions, e.g., the infamous Have you stopped beating your wife?); and, finally, they can vary with regard to the way they misrepresent reality (they can falsify, but also only distort by making stronger or weaker claims, or take words out of context). Other important aspects of acts of deception are the relevance of the act and the accountability of the speaker (Bradac et al. 1986). The final distinction is whether the act of deception focuses upon the extralinguistic reality or the message itself (see Galasinski 2000).
The status of deception as a discursive act is relatively less explored. Deception is not a speech act in the same way statements, promises, or questions are, nor is it related to any linguistic form. Rather, it is a characteristic of speech acts. Thus, lies are mendacious statements, and evasions are covertly uncooperative answers. Deception is parasitic on other uses of language in that speakers use conventional speech acts to further their social goals.
Even though morally condemned, acts of deception are sometimes accepted (the socalled “white lies”), and expected. There is a plethora of discursive activities in public, semi-public, and private discourses in which deception can be expected. Discursive practices in politics, in advertising, in storytelling, or in contacts with insurance companies are often assumed to be economical with the truth.
Methodologically, research into deception as a discursive action is fraught with problems, the main one being that of basing it upon naturally occurring data. As deception is inextricably linked to the intention to mislead, which is covert, socially unaccepted, it is therefore empirically inaccessible. Thus, it is possible to argue that research based on researchers’ instructions for the participants to lie or deceive, which dominates in the field, or asking participants to remember their deceptions, explores social constructions of deception rather than deception itself. The way forward might be collection of data in which one has access both to the “act of deception” and the reality it is designed to represent and so it is research focusing on misrepresentation that might be part of the solution (Galasinski 2000; Miller and Stiff 1993).
Future research into the discourse of deception should, first, more clearly locate deception within the family of strategic, nonovert acts of discourse, such as manipulation, persuasion, and others. Second, and related, it should more clearly locate discursive deception in relation to visual and other kinds of deception. Third, it might look into the linguistic workings of deception, its relation to the context as well as its various social configurations, and especially its relationship to power relations as well as gender, ethnicity, age, or disability, as well as other axes of social status.
- Aitchison, J. (1996). The seeds of speech: Language origin and evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Bok, S. (1978). Lying. Brighton: Harvester Press.
- Bradac, J., Friedman, E., & Giles, H. (1986). A social approach to propositional communication: Speakers lie to hearers. In G. McGregor (ed.), Language for hearers. Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 127–151.
- Galasinski, D. (2000). The language of deception. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (eds.), Speech acts (Syntax and semantics 3). New York: Academic Press, pp. 41–58.
- Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the evolution of society. London: Heinemann.
- McCornack, S. A. (1992). Information manipulation theory. Communication Monographs, 59, 1–16.
- Miller, G., & Stiff, J. B. (1993). Deceptive communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Ng, S. H., & Bradac, J. J. (1993). Power in language. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.