Bechorot 44 (Part I). The Cohen with Eye Problems - and a Pretty Bad Liver

[To understand the many conditions mentioned on Bechorott 44, you need a lot of medical information. So Part I is released today, although the daf will not be learned until tomorrow, when Part II will be released. Enjoy.]

To act as a Cohen you must look like a Cohen

“A man in whom there is a blemish from among the offspring of Aaron” (Lev. 21:21). From this verse the great Rabbi Yochanan concluded that in order to serve in the Temple, a Cohen must look like any normal descendant of Aaron, the first High Priest. Today’s page of Talmud lists a number of medical conditions, which, because they result in a recognizable deviation from normal human anatomy, would preclude a Cohen from serving in the Temple. Here is the medical science that explains some of them.

“If he looks at first floor room and an attic at the same time”

עינו אחת למעלה ועינו אחת למטה ורואה את החדר ואת העלייה כאחת או שמדבר עם חבירו ואחר אומר לי רואה

From  here .

From here.

The condition that the Talmud is describing here is called vertical diplopia. As a result of a weakness in one set of eye muscles, when looking straight ahead one of the eyes wanders upwards. This is most commonly caused by damage to the fourth cranial nerve, called the trochlear nerve. The trochlear nerve supplies the superior oblique muscle of the eye, which (despite its name) causes the eye to look down and out. The nerve originates on one side of the brain stem, then crosses over to the other side and innervates the muscle. Because the trochlear nerve is unusually long it is more easily damaged. This damage can be congenital or acquired, and the most common cause is head trauma. Trochlear palsy results in that down-and-out motion of the muscle being lost, and due to the now unopposed actions of the other muscles of the eye, it wanders up. Because the eyes are no-longer in parallel the person has double-vision, or in medicalese, diplopia. To compensate, he will adopt a downward tilt of the head, which brings the eyes back into a parallel gaze. But if the person were to look straight ahead, they might certainly see both upwards and (a little bit) downwards, which is the condition described in the Talmud. This Cohen cannot serve because he has an abnormal eye gaze.

“One whose eyes are constantly moving”

זויר- דמזור עיניה

Another eye abnormality is a Cohen “whose eyes are constantly moving.” This condition is called nystagmus, and the eyes appear to dart back and forth horizontally, or more worryingly, vertically. Vertical nystagmus is always pathological, but a small degree of horizontal nystagmus is normal. It is often unnoticeable, and is called physiological nystagmus. Pathological nystagmus is caused by a host of conditions, though the ones I saw most often in the Emergency Department were caused by an attack of benign positional vertigo, or chronic alcoholism. You can see a nice video demonstration of the condition here; this one is caused by multiple sclerosis.

Liver Disease and the Cohen

The Mishnah (44b) then lists another series of physical changes that would exclude a Cohen from serving. Here it is:

בכורות מד, ב

דדין שוכבין כשל אשה כריסו צבה טיבורו יוצא נכפה אפילו אחת לימים רוח קצרה באה עליו המאושבן ובעל גבר

One who has breasts so large that they sag like those of a woman; or if one’s belly is swollen and protrudes; or if one’s navel protrudes; or if one is an epileptic, even if he experiences seizures only once in a long while; or one who is afflicted with a melancholy temper; or one whose scrotum is unnaturally long; or one whose penis is unnaturally long is disqualified from performing the Temple service.

At first, this seems to be just a random collection of anatomical blemishes. But in fact there is a single medical condition which causes all of them. It is cirrhosis of the liver, in which the cells are replaced by scar tissue. Cirrhosis has many causes, including chronic viral hepatitis, fatty build up, liver cancer, medications and genetic disorders. But the most common cause of liver cirrhosis is chronic alcohol abuse. Here is the list of symptoms from the Mishnah, with an explanation of the medical science behind them.

Severe gynecomastia in a young man. From  here .

Severe gynecomastia in a young man. From here.

  • Gynecomastia. This is an abnormal swelling of the breasts in a male. In extreme cases the breasts may be so large that they resemble those of a woman. It has many causes, one of which is cirrhosis of the liver. What happens in men with alcoholic liver cirrhosis is that they have increased serum levels of androstenedione, which is then converted into estrogens causing enlargement of the breast tissue. Since cirrhosis also causes testicular atrophy (see below), there are lower levels of circulating testosterone which also contributes to the development of gynecomastia.

Ascites and umbilical protrusion caused by liver disease. Just like it is described in the Talmud. From  here .

Ascites and umbilical protrusion caused by liver disease. Just like it is described in the Talmud. From here.

  • Abdominal swelling. When the liver fails, raised pressure in the portal vein causes a build-up of fluid in the abdominal cavity. This fluid is called ascites, and when present in a large enough volume it can cause severe abdominal distension, as you can see in the picture. It is extremely uncomfortable for the patient who has severe shortness of breath, and for whom lying flat becomes impossible. 

  • Prominent umbilicus. As the volume of ascites increases, it can push against the abdominal wall and as a result the umbilicus appears to extrude.  (This is not the same as an umbilical hernia, which may look similar but is caused by a defect in the muscle of the abdominal wall.)

  • Testicular and penile swelling. The ascitic fluid follows gravity and will drain caudally, that is, in the direction of the feet (or around the buttocks if the patient is lying down).  It can track through the fascial planes and settle in the scrotum where it causes swelling. The Mishnah describes swelling of the testes themselves, but the scrotal swelling is caused by the ascitic fluid, and not by any enlargement of the testes. In fact liver cirrhosis causes the testes to atrophy. Fluid that has tracked may also find its way into the penile tissue, causing it to swell, (and labial edema is seen in women with ascites).  While this is not common, there are several case reports of this in the medical literature. The Mishnah describes the penis as extending down to the knees, which is certainly far more severe than any of the published cases.

  • Seizures. The ArtScroll English Talmud translates the word נכפה as epileptic seizures. This is usually close enough, but the seizures being described here are, from the context, not caused by epilepsy. Chronic alcoholics will seize if they do not keep their blood alcohol at a high enough level. These seizures, called alcohol withdrawal seizures, are common and I’ve treated dozens and dozens of them in the ED. An IV valium-like sedative usually does the trick, but giving the patient a couple of shots of whiskey will prevent them from occurring at all. Many years ago while I was a medical intern at in Boston, I would (on the orders of the attending physician) prescribe “30cc ETOH q6hrs prn” which is translated as “30cc of alcohol every six hours as needed.” By giving hospitalized patients these regular drinks, their alcohol level would remain just high enough to prevent alcohol withdrawal and the seizures that follow. They would also thus ensure a better night’s sleep for the patient, and an easier night shift for me and the nurses.

  • Depression. Not surprisingly, there is a higher than usual prevalence of depression in people with liver cirrhosis. In addition, end-stage liver cirrhosis causes encephalopathy, which is a global dysfunction of the brain. It causes irritability, a slowing of cognitive function and sleepiness, which overlap with some of the symptoms of depression. As the disease advances there is increasing stupor and coma, and eventually death.

The terrible dangers of alcohol abuse 

This Mishnah appears to be the earliest recorded description of the signs of liver cirrhosis, the most common cause of which, as we have noted, is chronic alcohol abuse. It should come as no surprise that this condition was prevalent enough to be recorded. Water sources were usually contaminated, and most of the population drank beer of varying strengths.

“Since it was made using boiling water, beer was safer to drink than water which quickly becomes contaminated with human waste even in the smallest settlements…wine also made water safe. As well as being free of pathogens, wine contains natural antibacterial agents that are liberated during the fermentation process…Much of the appeal of other beverages, starting with beer in the Neolithic period, was that they were less likely than water to be contaminated.”
— Tom Standage. A History of the World in Six Glasses. Walker Publishing 2006.pp 21, 59, 266.

The Bible prohibits a drunk Cohen from serving, but alcoholic liver cirrhosis is most certainly not a disease of Cohanim. In the US there are about 630,000 adults with liver cirrhosis, and chronic alcohol abuse is the cause of at least 60% of cases. This Mishnah should be a warning to everyone: before it eventually kills you, alcohol abuse leads to some very nasty conditions.

Print Friendly and PDF

Bechorot 42b ~ Rabbi Akiva, Voltaire, and the man with one testicle

LevIrite Marriage

If a married man dies childless, his brother is called upon to marry his widow and raise children with her. This is called levirate marriage - yibbum - and is described in the Torah (Deut. 25:5-10).

כִּֽי־יֵשְׁב֨וּ אַחִ֜ים יַחְדָּ֗ו וּמֵ֨ת אַחַ֤ד מֵהֶם֙ וּבֵ֣ן אֵֽין־ל֔וֹ לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֧ה אֵֽשֶׁת־הַמֵּ֛ת הַח֖וּצָה לְאִ֣ישׁ זָ֑ר יְבָמָהּ֙ יָבֹ֣א עָלֶ֔יהָ וּלְקָחָ֥הּ ל֛וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וְיִבְּמָֽהּ׃

When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married to a stranger, outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall unite with her: he shall take her as his wife and perform the levir’s duty.

The brother may also refuse to enter into this relationship, in which case a ceremony called chalitzah is performed.

וְנִגְּשָׁ֨ה יְבִמְתּ֣וֹ אֵלָיו֮ לְעֵינֵ֣י הַזְּקֵנִים֒ וְחָלְצָ֤ה נַעֲלוֹ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְל֔וֹ וְיָרְקָ֖ה בְּפָנָ֑יו וְעָֽנְתָה֙ וְאָ֣מְרָ֔ה כָּ֚כָה יֵעָשֶׂ֣ה לָאִ֔ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־יִבְנֶ֖ה אֶת־בֵּ֥ית אָחִֽיו

his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house!

It is regarding these options that in today’s daf yomi, we read the following:

בכורות מד, ב

דכ"ע כר"ע דאמר סריס חמה לא חולץ ולא מייבם

Everyone agrees with the opinion of Rabbi Akiva that a sris chamah performs neither chalitzah nor yibbum.

Our next task is to find out what exactly is meant by the term sris chamah.

What is a “Sris Chamah”?

Translated literally, a sris chamah is “one who is castrated by the sun.” In the tractate Yevamot (79b) Rabbi Akiva gives some context to his ruling, a context that can help us to define this condition.

א"ר עקיבא אני אפרש סריס אדם חולץ וחולצין לאשתו מפני שהיתה לו שעת הכושר סריס חמה לא חולץ ולא חולצין לאשתו מפני שלא היתה לו שעת הכושר

Rabbi Akiva said: I will explain. A eunuch caused by man, i.e., one who became emasculated after birth, performs ḥalitza with his yevama and his brothers perform ḥalitza with his wife, because he had an hour of fitness, a time when he was fertile. On the other hand, סריס חמה, a eunuch by natural causes, [from birth] does not perform ḥalitza with his yevama and his brothers do not perform ḥalitza with his wife, because he did not have an hour of fitness, [as he never had the potential to father children].

And Rashi adds this note, to make sure we are certain of the definition:

סריס חמה - ממעי אמו

Sris Chamah - [a eunach] while still in utero

We generally define a eunuch as a man who has been castrated of both testes. But as we will see, the rabbis of the Talmud used the term סריס חמה -sris chamah- to refer to a male with only one testicle. But first, a detour…

Voltaire, the Pope and the man with three testicles

In 1587, Pope Sixtus V decreed that all marriages in which the man did not have two testicles in the scrotum should be dissolved.  Voltaire (1694-1778), felt the need to share some further observations on the testes and the Pope's edict, in his Philosophical Dictionary:

This word [testes] is scientific, and a little obscure, signifying small witnesses. Sixtus V... declared, by his letter of the 25th of June, 1587, to his nuncio in Spain, that he must unmarry all those who were not possessed of testicles. It seems by this order...that there were many husbands in Spain deprived of these two organs...We have beheld in France three brothers of the highest rank, one of whom possessed three, the other only one, while the third possessed no appearance of any, and yet was the most vigorous of the three.

...[The] Parliament of Paris, on the 8th of January, 1665, issued a decree, asserting the necessity of two visible testicles, without which marriage was not to be contracted.

So this thing about marriage and the number of testicles a man was rather important even many centuries after Rabbi Akiva lived. With that observation, let’s return to sris chamah.

The Talmud in Yevamot (70a) listed the circumstances under which a Cohen is not allowed to eat terumah. Among those banned from this edible delight is a Cohen with an injury to his testicles - and this same injury, the Mishnah continues, when found among other Jewish men, may prevent that man from marrying. In discussing the details of what kind of testicular injury results in a ban on marriage, we read the following:

יבמות עה,א

אמר רבי ישמעאל בנו של ר' יוחנן בן ברוקה שמעתי מפי חכמים בכרם ביבנה כל שאין לו אלא ביצה אחת אינו אלא סריס חמה וכשר סריס חמה

Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Berokah said: I heard from the sages in  the vineyard at Yavneh that whoever has only one testicle [at birth] is called "sterile from the sun" [i.e. naturally sterile] and is allowed to marry...

So according to this report of Rabbi Yishmael, the sages in Yavneh allowed a man born with one testicle to marry.  The Talmud is describing a condition known as cryptorchidism in which one or sometimes both of the testes remains undescended and hide somewhere within the abdomen.

Where is the missing testicle?

 To understand why the testes take this hike, there's some embryology involved. Rather than explain with words, here is a stunning animation showing why the testes develop where they do and how they descend. Grab a cup of coffee and listen as Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade op. 35 plays in the background. The formation of the testes begin at 1:02 if you are in a hurry (but don't be).

Animation is derived from Keith L. Moore, T.V.N. Persaud, Mark G. Torchia, "Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects", 8th edition. Elsevier, 2012.

 If you didn't watch the video, here is what you need to know:

 
Image of testicle descending.jpg
 

Got it? OK.  So the testes develop in the abdominal cavity and migrate southwards into the scrotum. Usually they land there by birth, or soon after, if they behave themselves.  Which they don't always do. Sometimes one of the pair (and very rarely both) fail to migrate. Sometimes they descend and then, apparently disappointed by their new cool accommodations, bolt back north to the warmth of the abdomen. Which brings us to the next question…

how common is cryptorchidism?

The best answer will be an educated guess because the data is not great. One of the few studies of the epidemiology of this condition comes from the medical examination of English schoolboys published in 1941. It reported that the incidence of cryptorchidism in 3,300 boys under 15 was almost 10%, but that this number dropped to less than 1% in boys older than 15. And then in this paper comes this delicious line:

Sir Robert Hutchison tells me that he knew a man in whom descent occurred while he was an undergraduate at Oxford (an event duly celebrated by a party)
— Smith RE. The undescended testicle. The Lancet 1941;14: 747-751

A more recent  study from 2007  put the incidence of undescended testes at 1-4.6% at birth (depending on the infant birthweight), while at age 11 the incidence is anywhere from 1.6-2.2%. The incidence is higher in low birth-weight and premature boys. What is clear is that there is an association with fertility and cryptorchidism, even when the testicle that went AWOL is retrieved and secured in the scrotum.

The incidence of azoospermia in men with unilateral cryptorchidism is 13% regardless of the fate of the testis
— Canadian Urological Association Journal, 2011

Which brings us back to the prohibition against a man with injured testes (or penis - as in Deut. 23:2:   לא יבא פצוע דכא וכרות שפכה בקהל) marrying. It is related to his presumed inability to father a child. Voltaire seems to have been unsure of the role of the testes (whether one, two, or in one lucky case "three,") but Rabbi Yishmael's  סריס חמה, a man with only one visible testicle, while certainly less fertile than a normal man, is capable of fathering a child.  Hence his marriage, while not encouraged, is recognized, and this is codified as normative Jewish law. 

 (שולחן ערוך אבן העזר הלכות קידושין סימן מד, ד)

 סריס שקדש, בין סריס חמה בין סריס אדם, וכן אילונית שנתקדשה, הוי  קדושין 

If a man with one testicle married, whether this condition is from birth or later acquired, he is legally married.

Today, an undescended testicle is surgically brought into the scrotum at an early age, so that the cryptorchidism described by Rabbi Akivah and Rabbi Yishmael has been virtually eliminated, as have been some very interesting parties at the University of Oxford.

{Partial repost from here.]

Print Friendly and PDF

Bechorot 37b ~ Trephination

Although human remains transmit ritual impurity, if they are missing a bit they may not transmit a certain kind of ritual impurity called tumat ohel. Which brings us to the case of a skull with a hole in it. How much needs to be missing for the skull to be incapable of causing others to become impure?

בכורות לז,ב

ובגולגולת ב"ש אומרים כמלא מקדח וב"ה אומרים כדי שינטל מן החי וימות

Concerning the deficiency in the skull: Beit Shammai say that it must be missing a piece like the size of a drilled hole, and Beit Hillel say: It must be missing an amount that if removed from a living person, he would die.

But just how big is Bet Shammai’s “size of a drilled hole?” In tomorrow’s daf (38a) we learn that it is the size of “the small drill hole, used by physicians” (בקטן של רופאים). So around the first century BCE there were physicians going around drilling holes (of various sizes) into the skulls of the living. Why on earth would they do such a thing, and just how common was this practice?

 
Trephinated skull  of a 50-year old woman found in Corseaux-En Seyton, Switzerland. Growth of the bone around the burr-hole indicate that the the patient survived the procedure. From the collection of the Cantonal Museum of Archeology and History, Lausanne Switzerland.

Trephinated skull of a 50-year old woman found in Corseaux-En Seyton, Switzerland. Growth of the bone around the burr-hole indicate that the the patient survived the procedure. From the collection of the Cantonal Museum of Archeology and History, Lausanne Switzerland.

 

Trephination - a hole drilled into the skull

Let’s start by introducing you to a word you may not have heard of. Trephination. It is the art of boring holes into people’s heads, and is also known as trepanning. The word is ultimately derived from the Greek trypanon, which was the instrument used to bore these head-holes. That is what the Talmud refers to as “the small drill hole, used by physicians” (בקטן של רופאים). Trephination, the removal of a piece of the skull of a living individual without penetration of the underlying soft tissues goes back a long, long way. In fact it is the oldest surgical procedure known to humanity, and it predated Bet Shammai by at least 4,000 years.

Trephinated skulls from ancient Israel

Left: Round trephination found in Jericho. Right: Angular trephination, found in Timna. Angular trephination was associated with a very low rate of survival, indicated by lack of healing of the wound in the skull. It may have been practiced for ritual rather than for therapeutic reasons. From Arensburg B., Hershkovitz I. Cranial deformation and trephination in the Middle East.   Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris,   XIV° Série. Tome 5 fascicule 3, 1988. pp. 139-150.

Left: Round trephination found in Jericho. Right: Angular trephination, found in Timna. Angular trephination was associated with a very low rate of survival, indicated by lack of healing of the wound in the skull. It may have been practiced for ritual rather than for therapeutic reasons. From Arensburg B., Hershkovitz I. Cranial deformation and trephination in the Middle East. Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris, XIV° Série. Tome 5 fascicule 3, 1988. pp. 139-150.

Trephinations in Israel and South Sinai by type, healing status and period. From From Arensburg B., Hershkovitz I. Cranial deformation and trephination in the Middle East.   Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris,   XIV° Série. Tome 5 fascicule 3, 1988. pp. 139-150.

Trephinations in Israel and South Sinai by type, healing status and period. From From Arensburg B., Hershkovitz I. Cranial deformation and trephination in the Middle East. Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris, XIV° Série. Tome 5 fascicule 3, 1988. pp. 139-150.

Archeologists in Israel have discovered a many trephinated skulls. According to Prof I. Hershkovitz from the Department of Anatomy at Tel-Aviv University these include trephined skulls from a 7th century BCE. at Tel Duweir, a trephinated skull found in a tomb near Timna, roughly dated between the 6th century B.C.E. and the 3rd century C.E, and a skull from the Hellenistic-Roman period in Acco. Two trephinated skulls from the Middle Bronze Age I (~2,200-2,000 BCE) were found in Jericho, one from the Early Bronze age was found in Azor, and a trephinated Iron Age skull was found in Yavneh. But the very earliest skull found around the Land of Ancient Israel was uncovered in a a large cemetery at Wadi Hebran in the Southern Sinai. It belonged to a man aged between 35 and 40, who was buried around 4,000 BCE; that’s over 6,000 years ago. So yeah, trephination is a really old procedure.

According to anthropologists who have studied tre- phined skulls, patient survival rate varied greatly. One scientist found advanced healing in 250 of 400 skulls, for a survival rate of 62.5%. Other scientists have found the survival rate to be between 23.4% and 55.3%.
— Froeschner, E. Two examples of ancient skull surgery. J Neurosurg 1992; 76: 550-552.

Around the world with trephination

Evidence of trephination is by no-means unique to ancient Israel. Trephinated skull have been found in Peru, India, and Africa (where it is still practiced). The procedure was practiced in several different and geographically remote populations, which demonstrate that it independently evolved in each. Why would that happen?

In 2015 the neurosurgeon Miguel Faria suggested the following as an explanation. Neolithic man would have noticed that while massive blunt head injuries were invariably lethal, milder head injuries were not. There might be an extended period of unconsciousness to be sure, but some victims would, having been left for dead in the back of a cave, “miraculously” recover and become “undead.” Today we would call this period a “coma”, and, so the claim goes, it would have been supposed that “something in the head had to do with undying.” Then this:

“..an opening in the head, trephination, could be “the activating element,” the act that could allow the demon to leave the body or the good spirit to enter it, for the necessary “undying” process to take place. If deities had to enter or leave the head, the opening had to be sufficiently large…The head was chosen for the procedure, not because of any particular intrinsic importance or because of magic or religious reasons, but because of the unique and universally accumulated experience observed by primitive man in the Stone Age with ubiquitous head injuries during altercations and hunting. Otherwise, the pelvic bone or femur could have served the same purpose. We must recall that even the much more advanced ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hindu, and even Hellenic civilizations believed the heart to be the center of thought and emotions, not the brain. In fact, the association of the heart with emotions lingered to the present age.

And so it was that the procedure came to be practiced across the world. This may also explain how it also ended up being used in ancient Israel, and trickled down into a teaching about ritual impurity cited by Bet Shammai.

Print Friendly and PDF

Bechorot 36a ~ How Often do People Lie?

בכורות לו, א

מילתא דעבידא לאיגלויי לא משקרי בה אינשי

People do not lie about something that may later be revealed [as having been false]

Can a Cohen may be relied upon to testify that first-born animal in his possession has been declared by an expert to have a blemish (which would widen its permitted uses)? Rav Yehuda ruled (in the name of Rav) that the Cohen should indeed be believed. Since that expert could come forward and state that he issued no such ruling, the Cohen would not risk being discovered as having lied. In a small village or town of a few dozen to a few hundred families, this ruling is reasonable. To lie would expose the Cohen to the risk that his fraud might be exposed. But does Rav Yehuda’s no-lying rule make sense in today’s society?

It is important to point out at the outset that Rav Yehuda is not claiming that, as a rule, people do not lie. His point is that if they risk being discovered, they will not do so. So if there is no risk of the lie being detected, well, all bets are off.

“Most people lie often”

Pinochio .jpg

In 2002 Robert Feldman published a study demonstrating that 60% of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation and told an average of two to three lies. Now this cannot really be generalized, since it involved 121 pairs of undergraduate psychology students at a large state university who had to speak to a stranger for a period of time in a laboratory setting (and for their participation, received extra credit in their introductory psychology course). Although the researchers acknowledged that it would be “ hard to imagine that people lie almost three times per 10 min during most social interactions” the study was widely cited in the media, and is another example of journalists failing to take the time to understand what a scientist is actually claiming.

But there is a substantial and more reliable body of literature about the prevalence and psychology of lying. For example, there is the Principle of Veracity, first articulated by the philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok. According to Bok, there is a moral asymmetry between truth and deception such that ‘‘truthful statements are preferable to lies in the absence of special considerations.” In other words people will be honest when the goals are attainable through honest means; absent a motive, honesty prevails. It sounds obvious, but that didn’t prevent three psychologists from Michigan State University to put this to the test. And not all lying is the same. People tell more lies to strangers than to close friends, and if people lie, they tell different lies to their close friends than to strangers: They tell more self-centred lies to strangers, more other-oriented lies to close friends, and more altruistic lies about close friends than about strangers.

When social, psychological, and instrumental goals...can be accomplished without deception, then, absent psychopathology, people are honest. People do not deceive when the truth is equally efficacious. However, situations are sometimes such that the truth thwarts goal attainment. In these situations, people tacitly or actively consider deceit, and deceit is more or less probable depending on the importance of the goal, the difficulty of goal attainment absent deceit, and the probability of avoiding detection.
— Timothy R. Levine , Rachel K. Kim & Lauren M. Hamel (2010) People Lie for a Reason: Three Experiments Documenting the Principle of Veracity, Communication Research Reports, 27:4, 271-285,

Here is how the behavioral economist Dan Ariely summed up his comprehensive research on cheating and lying in his 2012 book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty:

Over the past decade or so, my colleagues and I have taken a close look at why people cheat, using a variety of experiments and looking at a panoply of unique data sets—from insurance claims to employment histories to the treatment records of doctors and dentists. What we have found, in a nutshell: Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society.

The Prevalence of Lying in America

A 2010 survey of 1,000 American adults found that 60% reported telling no lies at all over a 24 hour period. It also found that almost half of the lies are told by 5% of adults. In other words, most lies are told by a few rather prolific liars.

(A) The majority of Americans reported they did not lie in the past 24 hours (60%). (B) Percentage distribution by number of lies told; 32% told one to five lies and 8% reported telling six or more lies. From Serota K, Levine T and Boster F. The Prevalence of Lying in America: Three Studies of Self-Reported Lies.   Human Communication Research   36 (2010) 2–25.

(A) The majority of Americans reported they did not lie in the past 24 hours (60%). (B) Percentage distribution by number of lies told; 32% told one to five lies and 8% reported telling six or more lies. From Serota K, Levine T and Boster F. The Prevalence of Lying in America: Three Studies of Self-Reported Lies. Human Communication Research 36 (2010) 2–25.

Over time, the researchers concluded, “most Americans probably lie at least occasionally. But the inference of pervasive daily lying, drawn from the statistical average of one to two lies per day, and reinforced by media coverage of corporate deception and political malfeasance, as well as pop culture portrayals of deception detectors, belies the basic honesty present in most people’s everyday communication.” So there is hope after all.

Those in the UK tell more lies

Using the same methodology, the same researchers surveyed almost 3,000 adults in the United Kingdom. As in the United States, most people in the UK reported lying relatively infrequently, but a few prolific liars had deceptive behavior that is both more pronounced (more big lies) and riskier in terms of the consequences of being caught. The U.K. mean was about one-and-a-half lies per day or more than double the U.S. mean of 0.70, providing some evidence that lying is more prevalent in the United Kingdom than in the United States. Make of that what you will.

Situations in which prolific and everyday liars consider it acceptable to lie. Data from the UK survey by Serota and Levine. A Few Prolific Liars: Variation in the Prevalence of Lyin g.  Journal of Language and Social Psycholog   y  2015, Vol. 34(2) 138–157/

Situations in which prolific and everyday liars consider it acceptable to lie. Data from the UK survey by Serota and Levine. A Few Prolific Liars: Variation in the Prevalence of Lying. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 2015, Vol. 34(2) 138–157/

If only it were so

People will lie even if there is a risk of being discovered, and will do so brazenly and without concern for others. Just ask Elizabeth Holmes. Actually, don’t ask her, since she’d probably lie you. Rav Yehuda’s rule that people will not lie if there is a risk of their lie being uncovered is at best aspirational. Sadly, it is no-longer an accurate description of social norms. (Perhaps it never really was.) But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were so?

Print Friendly and PDF