Let’s admit it: all of us tell lies, for one reason or another. It’s part of our human nature. It’s had its utility during our evolutionary history and still has, or so we think. I believe that in very particular circumstances, lying might be a necessary and reasonable choice, for example to escape a life or death situation, but that’s pretty much it. Lying is usually used for the purposes of self-perseverance or social promotion and we, most of the time, go unaware of the repercussions of a lie.
But first let’s define what a “lie” is. A lie is to deliberately deceive someone with false information when they expect honest communication. It is, therefore, intended to make others form a belief that is not true.
We lie to make ourselves stand out, to avoid negative judgments, to hide wrongdoings. We sometimes lie to the ones we love to protect their feelings. We mislead to gain advantage, we hide the bad to highlight the good. But, undoubtedly, every lie is born out of the same principle: intending to communicate one thing while believing another.
The opportunity to deceive others is ever present, and for one reason or another, each and every one of us will hardly go to bed without having told a lie during the past waking hours. Some lies might be more subtle then others and the motivations might vary greatly, but at the end of the day, the one lied to will always be on disadvantage, because deception always provides with fake information.
Previous studies have found that deception is fairly common during communication, either within a couple or between friends (1, 2). Yet, we all know that truth is more rewarding in terms of interpersonal relationships than lies. Moreover, all forms of lying are associated with relationships of poorer quality (3, 4).
“Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.” by Sam Harris in ‘Lying’
I would like to focus my attention particularly on the “white lies”. Those lies we consider to be more benevolent because the intention is usually to spare the other person’s feelings, usually to tell her what we think she wants to hear. Let me give you an example that you will likely be familiar with:
Someone you’re very close too, a friend, a girlfriend, approaches you and asks: “Do you think I’m fat?”. The usual answer will be “No”, don’t you agree? We usually think that the person is asking for reassurance, and out of compassion we answer according to that assumption, because we don’t want her to feel sad. And most likely that’s what your friend wants, reassurance. But let’s suppose that your friend is actually fat and out of shape and you know that she is having an hard time with that situation, maybe feeling less self-confident. And you believe she could lose a couple of pounds and get in shape for many different reasons, but most of all she would feel happier and healthier, you think. A white lie, for the purpose of immediate compassion, would simply be the denial of that. You would simply pass the opportunity to guide her in a moment of difficulty, you would be failing as a friend and as a person. Now imagine you know someone that is struggling to follow a career path that you truly believe is not meant for him, that he could be using his skills to become the best on something else. Would you be able to tell him the truth and provide the guidance? That’s a difficult one as well. Most of us would be tempted to encourage him to try harder or tell him that with patience and perseverance he would make it, that “great things come for those who wait”. But, in this case, that would be a negative and destructive encouragement. That white lie would steal him time, energy and motivation that he could be putting on pursuing a better and more satisfying career.
Sometimes the truth might feel really hard to tell, but when you convey your true beliefs to others you provide them with the opportunity to reflect upon your truthful opinion and question their own beliefs on a constructive way. And you will be communicating your feelings of love and selflessness, deepening the relationship with that person.
I believe that the active search for honesty on every action often leads to a much more gratifying experience of interaction with another person. You create bridges instead of building walls, you inspire others into doing the same and feelings of trust and empathy will blossom from within your interpersonal relationships.
Of course that if you dwell in ethically questionable milieus, you will find lying a necessity to keep yourself on “track” or at least extend your time on those dwellings. For instance dealing drugs or scamming for profit. But if you want to make your way out of such vile actions, which will ultimately affect yourself and others around you, you will have to re-look at lies from a whole different perspective and you will see that they are no more useful than bullets are.
In relation with secrets, you might also assume that lying can be required in order to retain information you were asked not to disclose. I’m talking specifically about the kind of secrets that someone, a friend, asks you to keep (leaving aside those that are held for professional reasons, the case for instance with doctors and psychologists, for obvious reasons). And in my opinion, these should also be avoided from the very beginning. Because keeping a secret is a burden, and the story you have to tell in order to hold the secret can put you on a path of deception that you didn’t want to be dwelling into. You should make that very clear next time someone asks you “can I tell you a secret?”
When you lie you are creating a story that collides with reality, and to keep a lie you have to commit to the fictional story and keep track of the plot in order not to be caught, which is energy consuming and psychologically distressing. And, needless to say, no one wants to be perceived as liar. But when you are caught in the habit of using it for whatever reason, people start to get clues from the incongruities on your stories and behaviors, and trust begins to deteriorate. A liar is eventually shunned for reasons he probably never understands.
In our personal lives and within society in general, lies are the basis of all forms of vice. A willingness to lie is behind every adultery act, financial fraud, government corruption, murder, etc. This moral defect slowly corrodes bridges and feeds distrust. Falsehoods spread like disease and a lie brought up into reality can have unpredictable outcomes that always create collateral damage downstream.
The question now is: “How willing are you to embrace truthfulness and gradually eradicate lies from your interaction with others?”
I challenge you to make an effort to become aware of the moments when you are propelled to lie on your day-to-day life. Ask yourself if you can find a proper way to convey the truth, instead of lying, without harming yourself or someone. If not, what is there for you in the long-run if you’d stop lying. How would your relationships change? Could it play an important role on your personal development? Would you become a better person? How might you affect people around you and, consequentially, society if you resolved never to lie again?
These, I believe, are the type of questions worth answering.
Article inspired on the ideas developed by Sam Harris on his essay “Lying”
1- DePaulo BM, Kashy DA. 1998. Everyday lies in close and casual relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 63-79;
2- DePaulo BM, Kashy DA, Kirkendol SE, Wyer MM, Epstein JA. 1996. Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70 (5): 979 – 995
3- Kalbfleisch PJ. 2001. Deceptive message intent and relational quality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 20 (1-2): 214-230
4- Cole T. 2001. Lying to the one you love: the use of deception in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 18(1): 107-129