What Lies Beneath: Improvisation and Lying

Lying is an everyday occurance. People make small lies when conversing with others, and some people tell lies to cover up crimes or when trying to get away with a crime. Are most of these lies bad? What makes us lie? Why do we lie to others? How does lying relate to improvisation?

Because it is normal for people to lie, most don't think anything of it. It is just something that occurs in daily life. Should we care that others lie? On this page you will find the types of lies people tell, whether they are more dangerous than others, and if they are really that important. In addition you will find the psychology of lying and how it relates to creativity in conversation. Finally, you will be able to see how lying relates to improvisation and the process of improv.

Lying as a form of improvisation appears to be largely unaddressed, though there has been a great deal of research on its psychological, neurological, and social aspects. There has also been research on the processes at work in oral storytelling, which relates more to story manufacturing and imagination. Imagination, though connected to lying, is a larger topic. Conversation is another umbrella topic that includes deception, and there has been research on the improvisational aspects of conversation and social interaction.

Lies, all Lies: Types of Lies

There are a few types of lies that most people tell. Stephen Kosslyn, a psychologist at Harvard, distinguishes the types of lies in order to further study deception. He determines two types of lies: spontaneous and rehearsed.

According to Kosslyn, a spontaneous lie is one that is performed on the fly (Marantz). Spontaneous lying is harder for the liar because they have to keep the truth in mind while coming up with a false one. It also requires that the real truth not be given away or revealed by mistake. A rehearsed lie, on the other hand, requires that the liar retrieve the memory of the lie they created, since it was thought of before hand (Marantz). lie_to_me.jpg
In the study that Kosslyn performed with an fMRI, he found that there are similar areas of the brain that are activated in the two types of lies (Marantz). Both types involved memory processing, but the method of memory processing is different between the two. When there was a spontaneous lie, part of the frontal lobe lit up in the area involving working memory. For a rehearsed lie, a different part in the right anterior frontal cortex lit up, which is the area involved in retrieving episodic memory.

Some could compare these two types of lies to improvisation and composition. A spontaneous lie is similar to improvisation because it is not a preconceived performance. It is a performance on the spot, taking into account the context surrounding it and using “licks” or phrases that have worked before. A rehearsed lie is similar to composition because it is an idea that has been worked out before the performance. There may be some minor changes that occur from the time of the original “composition” to the actual performance of the idea.

Robin Marantz Henig discusses other types of lies in her article “Looking for the Lie” in the New York Times magazine. She talks about lies of omission which are lies that might not seem like lies. The are lies that don't include the whole truth. Important facts are left out or misconceptions are not corrected (“Lies”). In her paper, Marantz Henig gives the example of going out to dinner with a sister and her boyfriend whom you find to be obnoxious. When asked about him later by your sister, you discuss the restaurant instead. The other type of lie Marantz Henig discusses is lies of commission which allow us to get along with each other. It is what others would call a polite lie (“Lies”). These lies consist of using excuses or false reactions as to not hurt another's feelings. The most typical Marantz Henig points out is responding to someone's inclination as to how you are and automatically saying “good” or “fine,” even when we aren't.

Psychology of Lying

Deception is not anything out of the ordinary nor is it against societal norms. Mark Twain said, “Everybody lies…every day, every hour, awake, asleep, in his dreams, in his joy, in his mourning. If he keeps his tongue still his hands, his feet, his eyes, his attitude will convey deception” (Livingstone). Deception is part of the life we live. It is how we make others feel better, get away with things, and make ourselves seem more appealing to others. Our society lives on lies. If everyone told the truth, how different would our world be? It is not only humans that are capable of deception. There is a flower called the mirror orchid that has a distinct blue color that mimics the look of a female wasp (Livingstone). This orchid also omits chemicals that simulate the female wasp pheromones. In using these deceptive measures male wasps are attracted to the orchid and stay on the flower long enough to get enough pollen off of the flower. This helps the orchid population maintain itself and pass on its genes to the next generation. The orchid has obtained this method of deception through natural selection because the flowers that were able to deceive the male wasps were able to pass on their genes.

Not only are plants capable of deception, but other animals can too. Livingstone discusses how a hog nosed snake when threatened by predators spreads out its cobra like hood and hisses while keeping its mouth shut (Livingstone). It makes the predators think it is dangerous when it really isn't. Many other animals do this as an evolutionary advantage. They mimic the appearance of another more dangerous animals so that they are not eaten by predators and therefore can pass on their genes to the next generation. Livingstone also tells a story of deception by Chacma baboons which were observed in a study from 1987 performed by primatologists Richard W. Byrne and Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The two scientists observed many of these deceptive behaviors, especially in social contexts. Their work led to their creation of The Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis. This hypothesis says increased social complexity led to increased intelligence and ability of deception in primates. The more complex our society gets, the more intelligent and deceptive we have to be in order to get ahead of everyone else. In other words, humans are natural liars.

Even though our morals say lying and deception is bad, those who lie still get ahead in life. It is those who are better at deception that get farther ahead than those who are not (Livingstone). Livingstone says there is a correlation between social popularity and deception skills. Those who are more deceptive can make themselves look better than others and attract more people who believe the lies. Robert S. Feldman, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, did a study in 2002 where he looked at students talking to a complete stranger. Feldman then had the students watch the tape and note how many times they had lied in that time period. He found that in a 10 minute conversation, 60% of students admitted to lying at least once. The group average was 2.9 lies in those 10 minutes. An interesting thing to note was that men and women lied in equal frequency, but about different things. Women usually lied to make the stranger feel good while men usually lied to make themselves look better (Livingstone). But not all lies are bad. Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of California Santa Barbara said that there are respectable lies, which are usually nicer than telling the truth. They are called kindhearted lies. She found that this is the type of lie that women tell most to other women. She said, “I think they just value their friends' feelings more than they value the truth,” (Marantz).

In order to deceive others though, we must be able to deceive ourselves so that we believe the lie as well. Mark Twain said, “When a person cannot deceive himself, the chances are against his being able to deceive other people,”(Livingstone). But what part of our brain makes the decision to to lie, and are we conscious of it? Livingstone suggests that cognition is separate from consciousness, and consciousness is a lesser part of cognition than previously thought. He presents a study by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. Libet studied the motor cortex and the electrical tension that occurs when the brain is ready to initiate an action. He found that our unconscious begins to initiate an action just over a third of a second before we actually decide to act. This tells us that it is our unconscious that makes the decision and our conscious mind takes credit for it. Livingstone connects this to deception in saying, “We are able to deceive ourselves by invoking the equivalent of a cognitive filter between unconscious cognition and conscious awareness. The filter preempts information before it reaches consciousness, preventing selected thoughts from proliferating along the neural pathways to awareness” (Livingstone).

But are all lies a bad thing? They are so much a part of society that most people don't think twice about lying. David Nyberg a visiting scholar at Bawdoin College said, “We humans are active, creative mammals who can represent what exists as if it did not, and what doesn't exist as if it did. Concealment, obliqueness, silence, outright lying– all help to hold Nemesis at bay; all help us to abide too-large helpings of reality” (Marantz). When a young child learns they can lie, there is a shift in the idea of power, and who holds that power. Robin Marantz Henig wrote in her article “Looking for the Lie” that learning to lie is part of growing up. It is the development of theory of mind that allows us to learn to lie. This theory of mind is the concept of understanding what goes on in our head is different from what goes on in other people's heads.

Above: A comparison of the prefrontal cortex regions of different species. The prefrontal cortex controls areas of judgment and personality strongly necessary in the process of lying.

Many scientists and psychologists are looking different tests to see if they are effective in detecting the lie. Not all tests are very effective, and the process of actually detecting lies when told is a complicated process. Scientists are trying to find a better test than the polygraph.

Creativity and Lying

Jeff Hawkins defines creativity in his book On Intelligence as “making predictions by analogy, something that occurs everywhere in cortex and something you do continually while awake” (183). He also discusses that there is a continuum of creativity from everyday acts of perception in sensory regions of the cortex to very rare and difficult acts of genius that occurs in the highest levels in the cortex (composing a symphony). According to Hawkins' definition many things would be seen as being creative while the general public most likely sees creativity in a different light.

Creativity is something that is seen as creating something, be it music, art or literature. Everyone has his or her own idea of what creativity is and what is considered creative. Hawkins says that, “all creative artistic forms-strive to break convention and violate the expectations of the audience…The best works break some expected patterns while simultaneously teaching us new ones” (186-187). Looking at improvisation, the expectations of the audience are challenged with the new ideas that are presented within the work. What is performed is a creative act that may or may not break the expected patterns of the audience. Improvisation is all about the unexpected, and working with prior knowledge in a way that is creative but unique enough that the audience views it in the same creative light. This creativity that is required involves many parts of what Hawkins would consider the cortex, therefore agreeing with his definition of creativity.

Creativity is an ever-present part of daily life. As Halpern and Johnson put it in their book Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation, “We all go through life every day without a script, responding to our environment, making it up as we go along.” While some situations are significantly more structured than others, creativity and improvisation are strong factors in many parts of life, despite the more apparent avenue of the arts. As more research is made in creativity in education and the workplace, results are showing the importance of creativity and creative or divergent thinking in society. In his TED talk on Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO expounds on the importance of creativity and play in the workplace as well as everyday life. His talk is also a part of a TED series on creativity found embedded below.

Everyday conversation is a common form of daily improvisation. A conversation is approached with some intention or topic, which is discussed, developed. Dialogue is concluded either along the lines of the original goal each individual came into the conversation with or a complete different conclusion then intended. Through the act of dialogue, a collaborative process, information and material is exchanged and ideas are sparked, resulting in a collaborative end goal. In his book Improvised Dialogues Richard Sawyer outlines two processes that are at work in improvisation dialogue in comedy theatre, which can be applied to conversation at large. In the “collaborative emergence” stage, partners in conversation are working to create a “frame” or field of domain for the conversation that unfolds. In everyday conversation we can think of many examples of how framework could be established (example: “How was your day?” or “What did I miss in class today?”). This conversational framework acts as the boundaries or rather guidelines for the unfolding dialogue. The second part of the process Sawyer describes as “downward causation” which takes the framework found in the first process and relates it to an individual level. While these processes are analytical tools for a complex improvisational activity (dialogue) it allows us to recognize the creative and improvisational qualities found in conversation, and further identify the individual portions of this form of improvisation.

In his article on “The Creativity of Lying” Jeff Walczyk discovered that “Creative liars tended to be higher in divergent thinking and more ideational” suggesting that lying as a creative act is most successful with divergent thinkers (Walczyk, 2008). Divergent thinking is “creative thinking that may follow many lines of thought and tends to generate new and original solutions to problems“ (Divergent thinking definition via http://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/divergent%20thinking) This concept of emergent thinking is often referred to in improvisational work, and is used by some to analyze and rate quality of improvisation (Sawyer,2000 “Improvisation and Creative”). For more on divergent thinking see this interesting page: http://creativegibberish.org/439/divergent-thinking/. With the research in improvisation and dialogue by Sawyer as well as the creative aspect of divergent thinking, it seems likely that some forms of lying are not only creative and divergent, but also improvisation. In Jeff Hawkins book he stated that “all creative artistic forms-strive to break convention and violate the expectations of the audience” (186) which is often the result of deception, even if the audience is not aware of the broken expectation. Lying is a divergent act: It is a departure from the original event or action. Therefore, no matter how believable a lie is to it's audience, the deception has an element of departure from the truth. As Walczyk found in another study on “Cognitive mechanisms underlying lying to questions” “just as written text constrains the mental representations of readers, social context constrains lie generation” (Walczyk, 2003). Thus, the creativity of lies are bound by a framework of the audience and social presence of others, resulting in a more believable lie for those listeners. In improvisational terms, this could be comparable to the importance of stylistic constraints found in jazz improvisation.

Walzyck further reveals how the intention of a lie could be either benevolent or malevolent, but is often an intellectual method of adapting to a situation. People view lying in different ways. A painting of a fictional landscape, or a fantasy novel could be considered a lie, for instance, because it is a creative fabrication. The intent behind this “lying” however is benevolent; that is, products such as the painting or novel are meant to bring understanding and happiness to others. One of the criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of the lies was short-term and long-term effectiveness. People who were effective at both divergent and ideational thinking were more effective and creative liars. In improvisation, and other types of creative work, we must also look at the short term and long term shape of the music, or scene. Therefore, lying, like music or improvisational theater, also involves a focus on listening and structure (Walczyk, 2003).

Hopefully future research in improvisation will explore more of the creativity and improvisational aspects found in deception. Our own compilation of findings from research on improvisation and deception can be found below.

Improvisation and Lying

As is the case with this topic of inquiry, there is a narrow scope of research dealing with the connection between lying and improvisation. However, there is a connection. New studies done with fMRIs have shown that the medial prefrontal cortex as well as the inferior frontal gyrus are heavily engaged while improvising. The medial prefrontal cortex deals with self expression and, in the context of improvisation, serves to block out inferior impulses that don't add to self expression. The inferior frontal gyrus is significant to lying because of its involvement in speech processing, specifically the construction of sentences. This perhaps describes a small part of lying; the blocking out of information that exposes the deception, and the construction of sentences that make up the deception itself.

In the realm of more concrete connections; the many neurological analyses of lying and improvisation reveal that they draw from largely the same areas of the brain. The prefrontal cortical region of the brain is instrumental in both improvisational processes and lying, offering a glimpse as to the essential neurological connection lying and improvisation both share. Processes such as evaluations of future consequences of current activities, prediction of outcomes, and personality expression are all inherent in the prefrontal cortex and factor into the processes of both improvisation and lying.

Unfortunately this information was gleaned from a .com domain i.e. a blog, and not a scholarly article. It also doesn't help that they mention a neuroscience writer who was involved in a plagiarism scandal (Jonah Lehrer)…

Improvisational lying takes place constantly in daily life. If you have any doubts about this, try these “Lie Witness News” videos from Jimmy Kimmel Live. Prompted with interview questions about fictional (or future) events, each of these subjects provide spontaneous lies – some embellished heavily with elaborate fictional narrative. Check them out:

While subjects in these videos were prompted with leading questions, each individual provided an improvisational lie response. In the video about a fictional earthquake in California, multiple subjects responses were elaborate personal narratives full of specific details about the faux event. In events like the ones above it appears that lying is strongly related to improvisation.

Improvisation has been the topic of much study in psychology, however most material is focused on improvisation in music or theatre settings. Although these studies do not fall under the topic of deception, this research in improvisation could provide more insight into the improvisational nature of deception.

Improvisation has been defined and thought of in many ways. In Empirical Study of Cognition and Theatrical Improvisation, done by a number of professors at Georgia Institute of Technology, a few of these definitions are provided. The most helpful definition when regarding lying is to think of improvisation as the act of real-time dynamic problem solving (Magerko, 2009). The interviewers above were presented with a problem–looking ignorant on TV– and came up with lies to solve this problem, some of them extremely dynamic.

While significant research has not yet explored the comparison and relationship between improvisation and conversational lying, a comparison of research within these individual topics can help provide initial insight and conclusions.


Baumer, A., Fuller D., Luther, K., Magerko, B., Manzoul, W., Riedl, M., Pearce, C. (2009). An Empirical study of cognition and theatrical improvisation. Adaptive Digital Media Lab, Georgia Institute of Technology. Retrieved May 19, 2013 from http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~riedl/pubs/magerko-cc09.pdf

Hawkins, J. (2004). On Intelligence (pp. 183-189). New York, NY: Times Books.

Limb CJ, Braun AR (2008) Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679

Livingstone-Smith, D. (2005). Natural-Born Liars. Scientific American Mind, 16(2), 16-23. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=ff8d9ec6-62a7-4a99-ac8c- 1789d07a6a4c%40sessionmgr110&vid=1&hid=123&bdata=J#db =aph&AN=17092526

Marantz Henig, R. (2006, February 5). Looking for the Lie. New York Times, 155(5348), 46-83. Retrieved April 29, 2013

Miller , E. K. (2002). The prefrontal cortex: categories, concepts and cognition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences Vols. 352 to 368; 1997 to 2013, 357, Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1693009/

Walczyk, J., Runco, M., Tripp, S., & Smith, C. (2008). The creativity of lying: Divergent thinking and ideational correlates of the resolution in social dilemmas. Creativity Research Journal, 20(3), 328-42. Retrieved May 9, 2013, from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=63f493ee-15cf-4d82-9c48-6987329a9466%40sessionmgr114&vid=2&hid=103

Yanow, D. (2001). Learning in and from improvising: lessons from theater for organizational learning. Reflections, 2(4), 58-62. Retrieved from http://class.csueastbay.edu/publicadmin/dyanow/Improv.pdf

Sawyer, R. K. (2000). Improvisation and the creative process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the aesthetics of spontaneity. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58(2), 149-161. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=2b31a0ba-dde5-4dab-9e97-0c5736678f3f%40sessionmgr112&vid=2&hid=128

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