In a world where people can feel each other's thoughts and emotions, is it possible to lie? Is it possible to think something different from what you really think? It doesn't make sense...

When you lie in spoken language, you are aware that what you are saying is different from the truth. The process of forming a lie involves thinking: trying to make it sound plausible, avoiding the truth, even thinking about what you don't want to say. The only explanation I can think of is a natural instinct to say something, in which case you would think it before thinking about what you are thinking.

In this case however, it is not truly a lie, right?

The form of telepathy I envision is one where people can sense every thought, feeling, and process going on in your head. Everything that happens in your mind which you are aware of, other people are also aware of it.

If a civilisation such as this existed, would lying even be possible and how would it work?

Here are two plausible answers:

1: Making yourself believe something enough that you appear to be telling the truth. This would only work if after lying you can recover knowledge that it was in fact a lie, otherwise you are misleading yourself as well as the party being lied to. Possibly, training yourself not to think about the fact you made yourself believe something.

2: Misinterpretation. Saying part of the truth, but not the whole truth. This way, the other person/people may interpret your thoughts in a different way. This can be used to mislead others, while all the time what you appear sincere. This would only work if you don't think about the things you are missing out.

Both of these have disadvantages which need to be covered before you can successfully lie to another.

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    $\begingroup$ There are different "types" of thinking. For example,you can imagine that you talk to someone, and then this imagination can contain any spoken sentence, including lies. But then, there's a second layer in your thoughts that lets you know that what you currently think is some imagination which you made up; that second layer is, however, not put in words; you know it, and you could articulate it if you wanted, but it's not articulated as default. So at what level does the telepathy work? At the level of explicit thoughts, or at the level of "active knowledge"? $\endgroup$ – celtschk Aug 3 '16 at 9:33
  • $\begingroup$ Also, does telepathy also transport images/objects you imagine, or just formulated thoughts? $\endgroup$ – celtschk Aug 3 '16 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ @celtschk This is base-level telepathy. Anything you think about can be detected. However, the idea of telepathy taking a mental effort could be possible, as a way to separate private and public thoughts. In this example however, i am assuming that if you are aware you are thinking something/feeling an emotion, everyone else is aware too. $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 3 '16 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ @celtschk also, telepathy does not transport objects using thought. That is called tenekinesis. $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 3 '16 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, so if I understand you right, what is transported is not so much your thoughts, but your conscious perceptions (including your perception of your own thoughts). Is that right? $\endgroup$ – celtschk Aug 3 '16 at 9:43

It really depends on the type of telepathy you as the author/creator envision. There could be telepathy that is purely intentional, akin to speaking or sign language. If others can always sense your thoughts or emotions, that might more properly be called mind reading or emotional empathy. In the latter, people still might be able to put up walls around their mind to pad or mute the effect. So ultimately, you get to choose.

Additional considerations:

First, on a communication level, what is truth? What separates truth from a lie? Whether I say the sky is blue or orange, there is nothing inherent in my communication that determines one or the other as real - truth is determined by the facts of life, regardless of what is communicated. The only exception with telepathy or mind reading would be sensing the intention to deceive, and intention is not the same thing as emotion.

You mentioned "evolved" telepathy, so consider what else might have evolved along with that - a subset of related functions that facilitate communication, including "blocking" thoughts or projecting only what is desired. Some might be better at communicating visual imagery, like artists, while musicians would have a much more detailed concept of audio information.

Some might not be good at this - you probably know people in real life who are terrible liars with just words. And anyone can run and jump, but watch the Olympics and tell me you can swim life Phelps. People can train and hone their natural skills to do amazing things, and as a natural ability, I can't imagine this would be an exception.


In response to OP's comment defining his or her brand of telepathy:

Others have answered about "lying" to oneself, so I won't repeat those.

"Feelings" then, must be very precisely defined. Particularly, distinguish between:

  • Emotions
  • Intentions
  • Motives
  • Desire
  • Memory

Now, some of these things are very low-level, subconscious functionality of the brain. While I always feel emotions and am usually conscious of them, I might not always be conscious of my own motives or intentions. Even if I am self-conscious enough to be aware of them, can I really articulate them, even to myself? Sometimes it takes weeks or months of introspection before one really understands some part of themselves. I personally think it would be unlikely for others to be able to sense those deep things "at a glance," as they aren't really feelings.

I might have strong emotional feelings for someone, but may have no intention of starting a relationship. Does the intent transfer, or just my warm fuzzies for them? Because unless I mentally articulate the intention, it could be a source of miscommunication, if not really a lie.

Memory - now this is a fun one! Memories might consist of thoughts and feelings, but in reality they are neither. Do others have access to only what I am remembering at the moment, or does everyone within telepathic range share a collective memory? But I'm digressing from the question of lying.

Based on what you describe, no, I don't think it's possible to intentionally deceive someone, which is usually via misinformation. Moreover, the social dynamic would be extremely different from ours. I don't think there would be cause for intentional communication - if everyone knows X, you can't articulate X any better to them. It would be redundant. I doubt there would be language or words - just a flow of abstract concepts. I don't think this society could even be aware of the concept of lying or deception, which makes an extremely interesting premise in itself.

  • $\begingroup$ The form of telepathy i am envisioning is where every thought and feeling is public. So if you hurt yourself, people around you will feel a sense of shock. If you think to yourself 'that hurt' and then ask someone else for a plaster telepathically, they can detect your thoughts for both actions. there is no difference between private thoughts and communication, they are the same. $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 3 '16 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ Answer edited in response $\endgroup$ – automaton Aug 3 '16 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ The last paragraph was especially interesting. It should be logical that others can only detect those thoughts, intentions, plans, memories, and emotions if the owner of said things is aware of them. As soon as you are aware of something and think about it, others can too. In this case, yes, i think lying is impossible. Maybe some tweaking to the specifics of how my telepathy works is in order... $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 3 '16 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ If you want to create a world where lying is possible, yes I believe so. I defer to my answer, that transmitting conscious thoughts and emotions but not desires or intent would give plausible wiggle room, or that there is some natural capacity to shield or blur your thoughts from others. $\endgroup$ – automaton Aug 3 '16 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, could you consider lying a "superpower" that a select few people are able to do? The handful of people with this ability would wield significant power and influence, and the rest of the world would always be guessing as to who can do it (since they've been burned by liars throughout history). It could evolve as a form of imagination incompatible with most people's minds, or multiple personality disorder where one personality is not public. $\endgroup$ – automaton Aug 3 '16 at 18:57

People already tell lies to themselves in their minds.

I can stop whenever I want to. He loves me. I'll have better luck next time. This is not possible. Just five more minutes. Just this one more time.

If you could read people's minds, you'd actually have to spend some effort filtering truth from those kinds of lies.

And if you pick the mind of a professional liar, such as a con man or a polictician, you'd probably see that they are able to consciously lie to themselves by doublethinking (from Orwell's 1984):

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink.

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    $\begingroup$ Worse than that. You are aware. But were someone to tap into your mind, and see the two contradictory facts you hold in there, they wouldn't know which one is 'true' to you - because both are true and both are false at the same time. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Aug 3 '16 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ But choosing to believe one or the other would involve fully, without question, believing it at that point in time. This links back to the problem discussed in the comments on Megha's answer: How can you do this but still retain a sense of truth afterwards? How can you temporarily delude yourself in order to lie to someone else? Otherwise you will remain convinced that your own lies are true, and you are lying to yourself aswell as the intended target. $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 3 '16 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ Let me use an example... I was raised by a religious family, so as a child I believed in the Genesis. Growing up I slowly "converted" myself into a non-religious person. The process was slow, it took some years... And in that time, if you asked me what was the truth - seven day creation, or the big bang - my answer would depend on the asker. I would say Adam an Eve to the catholic priest in the church. I would say the big bang to my physics teacher. And I believed in both, despite the contradiction. It was not me being undecided - it was me trying to fit in...(to be continued) $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Aug 3 '16 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ (Continuing from the previous comment)... Trying to fit into two different groups, with such fierce loyalty that I could not accept either's version of reality as "not true". You could ask me what was the real origin of the cosmos twice, get two different answers, and if you could read my mind, you wouldn't catch me lying because to me I had said the absolute truth in both cases. I was doublethinking. But contrary to automatin's comment, I cared deeply about the issue. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Aug 3 '16 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ You are also assuming that human beings are primarily rational. They're not. It's entirely possible to believe two mutually exclusive things. The human mind doesn't have any mechanisms to prevent that. We tend to correlate "belief" to something well-defined, when the truth is that people often can't articulate what they believe. They, themselves don't know. They haven't consciously thought about it enough to know for themselves... but they feel better by telling themselves that they do. $\endgroup$ – automaton Aug 3 '16 at 15:11

I think the answer may be yes.

In this world, outright lies, or cynical lies (where people know that they're lying) are going to be much rarer (but still possible). But people lie to themselves, about all kinds of things - this is a lie that's quite possible in this world. People can use half-truths and omissions to paint an inaccurate picture - it will take a lot more skill, but it's doable.

How common this kind of lying is, and how much skill it takes to lie this way, will depend on exactly how telepathy works in your world - does it require active projecting/listening, is there often background emotional leakage, is everyone aware of what anyone else is thinking all the time, is it weakened or limited by distance, are there different strengths - they will all play a role. But if someone can lie to themselves, they can lie to others no matter how the telepathy works.

For more cynical lies, there are a range of techniques that can be used to manipulate one's mind. Meditation can be used to alter someone's mood even at a fairly basic level. Advanced techniques (I've seen attributed to shamanism and psycho-healing) include the healer "almost-really-nearly" convincing themselves that something is true, in order to convince or manipulate their patients with the right attitudes for healing. Such purely mental manipulations can be real enough to have physical effects, from stopping their heart to keeping warm in below-freezing temperatures to a host of psychosomatic effects, so they can probably be used, with a little preparation, for someone to lie by almost-convincing themselves during the conversation. In your telepathy-world, these techniques to control someone's mind won't be difficult exotic curiosities, they'll be as basic as toilet training, so kids learn not to project their moods all over the place.

People would probably figure out the 'pink elephant trick' - that is, once someone says the sentence "don't think of pink elephants", it's impossible not to think of them - in some stories this principle is used to dodge telepathy because characters thinking about the elephants (or any equivalent fake-secret), aren't thinking about their actual secrets. Or use mental organization techniques (like the liar's palace, mapping thoughts into mental rooms) to hide their thoughts under layers, so that those half-truths and omissions, seem like the really-real truth while someone is trying to deceive, and not when they actually need the truth. They might figure out crude hypnotism or self-directed mental conditioning to keep from "blurting out" secrets to the wrong people pretty early in history, and they have time to develop these techniques to an art form to hide secrets or confidential information or classified material.

And, people would be trying to figure out how to lie from prehistory. Even if, for whatever reason, there are no animals (either predators hunting for or prey fleeing from the wrong projection) which use similar techniques, and only other humans can listen in - there really hasn't been a period in history without conflict between human groups. The ability to keep secrets, ranging from where the good hunting grounds can be found, to where the winter stockpile is, would be a survival trait. So they will find what works, and run with it.

  • $\begingroup$ So, by convincing oneself, one can convince others? Wouldn't this defeat the object though? The point of lying is to deceive someone else, and by deceiving yourself aswell you are no longer aware of the original truth you were meant to keep secret. $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 3 '16 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ In the 'Eragon' book series the Inheritance Cycle, the elves speak a language where it is impossible to lie. In order to deceive others, the elves often say something, but in fact they mean something else. Would it be possible to think a sentence which means something different to someone else, and therefore lie to them through misinterpretation? $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 3 '16 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ @AricFowler - I think that would be where the "almost-nearly-really" bit comes in, such a person would have to hold the belief strongly enough to convince others, while at the same time knowing they had manipulated their own thoughts. (or else risk messing up their own perception of the truth). But even if someone knows this person was manipulating themselves, it wouldn't necessarily tell them how, or why - neither what the truth really was, nor what they might be hiding (and if it was relevant or personal), might be easy to pick out of the deliberate manipulations and mental noise. $\endgroup$ – Megha Aug 3 '16 at 10:16
  • $\begingroup$ @AricFowler - as for your second comment, I think lying by misdirection or omission would be pretty likely in this world - focusing hard on the fact the sentence was true, might help hide that it didn't mean what they thought it meant (or that you knew they would misinterpret it). Or it might hide the fact that there are other true sentences you didn't say. Without saying a single "untrue" word. $\endgroup$ – Megha Aug 3 '16 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ To make yourself beleive something so much you can convince others... but at the same time remember you beleive wrong without letting on that you know what you beleive is wrong. This would only work if you trained yourself not to think about lying until afterwards, so as to appear fully sincere. $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 3 '16 at 10:24

I'd say it would not be possible to technically lie to others.

As different answers have pointed out that you could convice yourself of believing a lie and then tell wrong things to others without them noticing, I'm currently lacking of a convincing explanation on how to return to the knowledge of your "lie".

So how about this: A certain while after a relationship you can convince yourself you're over it but as it happens, you see your ex in the supermarket with a new lover and hurting heart realize you lied to yourself. If you predefined an external input, from which you know will snap back the state of your mind to before your "lie", you could actually realize that what you made yourself believe was in fact wrong and you knew before.

This could actually lead to potential psycho-thriller storylines.


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