What Is The Definition of Deception?

Deception involves acting in such a way which leads another person to believe something, that you, yourself, do not believe to be true (see Ekman; Miller & Stiff).

The following example helps illustrate this point:

Brad and Spencer

Brad and Spencer are both part of the same circle of friends. Even though Brad and Spencer aren’t close friends, they do a lot of things together, and as one would expect, they act friendly toward each other.

Brad, however, has a crush on Spencer’s girlfriend, Denise.

To be more precise, Brad and Denise both have a little crush on each other and flirt behind Spencer’s back. And because all three of them run in the same social circle, they spend a lot of time together.

To pull this off, Brad (not to mention, Denise) constantly has to avoid telling the truth in front of Spencer. Brad also has to do countless things that a normal friend would do with Denise, while never creating the impression that he has a crush on her. Brad’s behavior in front of Spencer is based, in large part, on what Brad believes Spencer would consider normal and appropriate behavior between two friends.

And like a lot of people who have been in a similar situation, Brad doesn’t think that he has actually lied to Spencer. After all, Spencer hasn’t asked Brad outright if he has feelings for Denise. Then again, why would Spencer ask such a question in the first place? Brad has been going out of his way to avoid creating a situation where such a question might come up....

Simple Test for Deception

People often claim that they are not misleading others even though they are intentionally withholding important information from them. People like to think this way, because it makes it easier for them to deceive others.

So, a good test to see if you are lying to someone is as follows:

  • If you have nothing to hide, why not tell the complete truth?

This is usually the best way to determine if you are misleading someone, regardless of your intent.

As you can see, this definition of deception is very broad; it encompasses a wide range of behaviors. But, there is a good reason for viewing deception this way.

When thinking about our own deceptive behavior, we like to think in very narrow and technical terms – like telling someone a blatant falsehood. Of course it is in our interest to think this way; it makes us feel both less guilty and less accountable for our behavior.

Taking such a narrow view of deception helps us maintain a positive self-image, which actually makes it easier to mislead others. It is easier to deceive someone when you don’t think of your behavior as being deceptive.

This is important, given that most deception occurs through means other than telling outright lies. In fact, deception is often best accomplished by what is left unsaid (explained in detail on the page that follows).

But on the other hand, when we discover that a loved one has been acting in a way which leads us to believe things that are not true, our definition of deception suddenly becomes more inclusive (broad).

When it comes to deception, people tend to be rather big hypocrites. When I leave out important details, I’m not misleading you. But, when you do the same to me, it feels deceptive.

Think back to our example about Brad and Spencer for a minute. How might Spencer react, if he were to discover that Brad and Denise have a crush on each other and they flirt behind his back. Do you think Spencer is going to be any happier knowing that Brad (and Denise) didn’t technically tell a single lie?

This is why a broad definition of deception is more useful than a narrow point of view. A broad definition of deception is simply more honest.