Positive psychology


The Truth about Lying

Falsehood, prevarication, fabrication, equivocation, misrepresentation—call it what you wish—a lie is a lie.

Some might argue that half-truths or little white lies are not lies, just stretching the truth.  Are there big lies and little lies? Are tall tales, cock-and-bull stories, shaggy dog stories, skirting or fudging, concealment or spinning lies? Sorry, yes they are all lies. If we know they are lies, why do we lie? Have we not, as children, been taught to always tell the truth?

A search of professional literature reveals scores of studies in articles and books by social psychologists, educators, theologians and others on the incidents, the benefits and liabilities, and the consequences of lying. Many of them discuss some of the questions outlined here such as who lies, why they lie, what they lie about, and lying as a moral issue.

Who lies?

There are those who believe that people can be divided into those who lie and those who do not. Research tells us that nearly everyone lies at least once or twice a day in their interactions with other people. Teens lie to parents, parents to children, partners to partners, workers to bosses, politicians to constituents, the President to the people.

Why do people lie?

When we tell an untruth, we may have what we believe to be a “good” reason. An altruistic lie is one in which, for example, someone pretends to like something more than they really do. It has at its intent the desire to protect the feelings of others.

Do we compliment a friend’s terrible haircut? Do we answer honestly when a spouse asks, “How do I look in this dress?” and you believe that any other optio would be an improvement? Do we tell the waiter that the food is fine, when we really thought it was overcooked, had too much fat or lacked flavor? Do we decline an invitation to a couple’s dinner party based on the boredom we experienced during a former visit by telling the host that we have a prior engagement? In all likelihood the answer, if we want to avoid hurt feelings and a disruption in relationships, is we lie.

We may also lie to protect ourselves. Self-serving lies fill a purpose: People do not want to be diminished in the eyes of others or punished for their own wrong-doing. We lie because of embarrassment or disapproval. Were we really late for work because of traffic, or did we oversleep? Did we try to pretend that we knew more about the subject than we really did?

Were we at a place we should not have been, doing something we should not have done, with someone with whom attendance should be off-limits, and we were caught?

We lie not only to protect ourselves and our honor but to create a particular impression of ourselves, to win friends or influence people by acting in a manner unbecoming to and inconsistent with who we really are.

What do many of us lie about? In her studies of the lies of college students and the overall community, Dr. Bella Paulo in The Many Faces of Lies (2010) cited five categories of lies.

She found that people lied about “1) their feelings and opinions; 2) their actions, plans and whereabouts; 3) their knowledge, achievements, and failings; 4) explanations for their behaviors; and 5) facts and personal possessions.” The categories most often lied about by students and community members were feelings and opinions followed by actions, plans and whereabouts.

Is it okay to lie? Is it abnormal, unacceptable and wrong? Is lying a moral issue?

Some, perhaps most of us, would argue that it is ethically advisable to always tell the truth. But at what cost? We have discovered that just about everyone lies given sufficient motive.

So we could argue that lying is normal and acceptable because of its frequency. But why do they lie? Are their motives designed to spare hurt feelings and strained relationships? Or are the motives self-serving, designed to protect and further the aims of the liar? Is there a moral equivalency between sparing hurt feelings and furthering the aims of the liar? Are motives and outcomes at the heart of discerning the acceptability and ethics of fabrication?

Departing from the truth is a bad idea. However, there are times when lying can be the more appropriate ethical response in a given situation. Some use the concept of “right speech” to justify untruths. When thinking of lying ask yourself is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?  Summing up the decision to lie or not is discussed in Dr. Thomas Plante’s book Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World (2004) in which he states, “Being responsible, respectful, maintaining integrity, being competent, and expressing concern for others are the principles that I think we need to use for ethical decision making. And perhaps concern for others trumps all.”

Perhaps you endorse an absolute moral rule such as “Thou shalt not lie.” Consider what would happen if we could reliably know when our family, friends, and government leaders were deceiving us. How would each of us respond when our family and friends honestly told us what they think of us? Would you really want to know? Let’s be honest.

The truth about deception is that most of us will continue to confront untruths, whether by others or ourselves. Much of the time, we mean well. When we compliment individuals, we want them to feel better about themselves or their ideas. So, how do we handle the false praise of others? We know when falsehoods are kind-hearted or self-serving, when what we say is helpful or harmful. We can differentiate between “good lies” and “bad lies.” To be true to ourselves our “lies” must fall through the filter of our personal integrity and the need to think about our own purpose before making untrue statements, compliments or not. It all goes to motivation. That is the truth about lying.
Contact Dr. Thompson at caroltmcc@comcast.net