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A lie, the dissimulation or willful deformation of the contents of a thought that the subject deems to be true, can be practiced only either vis-à-vis another person or by means of a split in the subject—in which case the subject lies "to him- or herself." A lie implies the intent to deceive and supports self-interest. The psychoanalytic approach to lying introduces the dimension of the unconscious.

The earliest psychoanalytic consideration of lies is found in Freud's "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), where he envisioned lies solely in the context of the psychiatric definition of hysteria as a form of simulation, although he rejected this perspective. While he acknowledged the existence of a tendency toward simulation and lying in hysterics, he attributed it to the fact that the patient "wishes to be ill," (p. 249), itself the result of patients' need to convince themselves and those around them of the reality of their suffering.

In "Project for a Scientific Psychology," the πρωτoυ πσευδoς (proton-pseudos) is usually translated as "first hysterical lie" although it in fact involves an error or mistaken connection rather than an intentional dissimulation or distortion. The well-known example of Emma shows that the "error" had to do with the fact that she related her attack of agoraphobia to the shop-assistants' ridicule of her clothes when she was thirteen, whereas the determining event, although its felt effects were deferred, was the memory-trace of a shopkeeper's pedophilic assault on her when she was a child. The mistaken connection resulted from the repression of a childhood memory that was not available to her at the time of the scene when she was thirteen ("Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences" [p. 7]).

In "Two Lies Told by Children" (1913g) Freud emphasized that lies between parents and children are "natural." In "On the Origin of the 'Influencing Machine' in Schizophrenia" (1919/1991), Viktor Tausk wrote: "children learn to lie from parents and upbringers, who by misrepresentations and unkept promises make the child obey and teach him to disguise his true purposes" (pp. 214-215 n4). The aim of Freud's article of 1913 was thus to show the existence of unconscious motivations in certain childhood lies that "occur under the influence of excessive feelings of love" (p. 305).

Such motivations do not involve the interests of the ego but instead correspond to an instinctual impulse that cannot be admitted, not because of the strong feelings of shame or unconscious guilt that are attached to it, but because it is unconscious. In the two cases evoked by Freud, incestuous love is behind the error and, secondarily, behind the lie that covers it up. The error itself could have been admitted as a fact, and if it is not acknowledged, this is because of the unconscious content it manifests. The "impossibility" of confession opens the way for reconstitution through deferred action, based on associations produced during the analysis, of the motivations that made the error impossible to confess.

This view leads to seeing the moral fault that the lie represents as a consequence of neurosis. A strictly moral understanding of lies is thus transformed by the psychoanalytical approach into an interrogation of the desire for falsehood. Such a desire, or even need, is incompatible with psychoanalysis, which requires, of analyst and patient alike, not that they tell the truth, but that they seek it.

According to Sándor Ferenczi (1912/1968), the difference between suggestion and psychoanalysis is that the former maintains disguise and repression owing to its basis in the authority of the therapist, where the latter "combats the 'vital lie' wherever it is found . . . its final goal [[[being]]] to let light penetrate into human consciousness as far as the most hidden wellsprings of motivations for actions." Ferenczi, too, stigmatized the pedagogy of his time, which imposed upon children the repression of emotions and ideas. In "Psychanalyse et pédagogie" (1908; [Psychoanalysis and education, 1949]), he wrote: "The closest thing to it is lying . . . current pedagogy forces the child to lie to himself, to deny what he knows and what he thinks." Echoed here is Freud's concern about telling children the truth about sexuality; lying, in this context, appears first and foremost as an adult form of hypocrisy, with children's lies being a response to it.

Karl Abraham (1925/1927) studied from a psychoanalytic viewpoint the case of a captain of industry, analyzing his compulsion to deceive others as a two-phase process in which he first showed himself to be lovable because he had not been loved by his parents, then did his best to disappoint those whom he had duped in order to take revenge against them. In "Über einen Typus der Pseudoaffektifivität ('Als ob')" (1934) Helen Deutsch introduced the important notion of the "as if" personality, which is not a utilitarian lie told on a given occasion, but rather protects the "true Self" with a "false Self" (Donald Winnicott). Mythomania can also be situated within this framework of a narcissistic pathology in which lies are addressed both to others and to the self. Moreover, in "The Antisocial Tendency" (1956/1984) Winnicott situated theft associated with lying at the heart of antisocial tendencies in children and adolescents, but also connected this to incontinence and anything that makes a mess. In this context, this would focus on ease and opportunity to the classic moral understanding of an aggressive will to deceive. Lying, like gluttony and theft, originates in frustration.

The psychoanalytic view of lying is thus very broad, because it includes both the dimension of the false, ranging from social adaptation to pathologies of identity, and that of willful deceit, for which explanations relating to frustration or repressed love can be found.


See also: As if personality; Historical truth; Imposter; Memories; Mythomania; "On the Sexual Theories of Children"; Proton-pseudos; Secret; Transitional object; Truth. Bibliography

   * Abraham, Karl. (1927). The influence of oral erotism on character-formation. In Selected papers of Karl Abraham (Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey, Trans., pp. 393-406). London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1925)
   * Deutsch, Helene.Über einen Typus der Pseudoaffektifivität ("Als ob"). Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse, 20.
   * Ferenczi, Sándor. (1949). Psychoanalysis and education. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 30, 220-224. (Original work published 1920)
   * ——. (1968). Suggestion et psychanalyse. In his Psychanalyse I, Œuvres complètes (Volume 1: 1908-1912; pp. 233-242). Paris: Payot. (Original work published 1912)
   * Freud, Sigmund. (1913g). Two lies told by children. SE, 12: 303-309.
   * ——. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.
   * Tausk, Viktor. (1991). On the origin of the "influencing machine" in schizophrenia. In Paul Roazen (Ed.), Sexuality, War, and Schizophrenia: Collected Psychoanalytic Papers (Eric Mosbacher et. al., Trans.; pp. 185-220). New Brunswick: Transaction. (Original work published 1919).
   * Winnicott, Donald W. (1984). The antisocial tendency. In his Deprivation and deliquency. London: Tavistock. (Original work published 1956)