“I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.”
“The truth is always an insult or a joke. Lies are generally tastier. We love them. The nature of lies is to please. Truth has no concern for anyone’s comfort.”
Why Do People Lie?
We lie to:
- fit in and pretend we are like others
- stand out and pretend we are different to or better than others
- seek approval from others
- be seen as more loveable/desirable/acceptable
- feel better about ourselves
- avoid getting into trouble
- protect other people’s feelings or avoid hurting them
- be polite
- avoid feeling hurt, sad, disappointed, guilty or ashamed
- keep a secret
- maintain confidentiality
- be consistent with societal norms
“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
What Happens if We Are 100% Honest?
- Sometimes it is necessary to lie, or at least not always be brutally honest and say everything that comes to your mind, and
- By trying to be as honest as possible whilst also being tactful, you may actually become a better person that upsets people less and has better quality and more authentic relationships.
“One lie has the power to tarnish a thousand truths.”
In 2007, A.J. Jacobs wrote an article for Esquire magazine about a month long experiment that he did on a small movement called Radical Honesty. It was titled ‘I Think You’re Fat‘ and is definitely worth a read. Much more than the 1995 book called ‘Radical Honesty’ by Brad Blanton that initially inspired the article:
Blanton had worked as a psychotherapist for 35 years in Washington D.C. and ran 8-day workshops on Radical Honesty that retailed for $2,800 back in 2007. Blanton says his method works, although he may distort some of the positive benefits for personal and financial gain. He’s been married five times, and claims to have slept with more than 500 women and six men, including a “whole bunch of threesomes.” He also admits to lying sometimes.
“She looks honestly upset, but then, I’ve learned that I can’t read her. The problem with a really excellent liar is that you have to just assume they’re always lying.”
I Think You’re Fat
In Jacobs article, he wasn’t overly positive about Blanton’s version of Radical Honesty either. If we didn’t have a filter between what we say and what we notice in the world, in our body and in our thoughts like Blanton advocates, the results would probably be less funny and more consequential than what happened to Jim Carrey in ‘Liar Liar’. Jacobs declares:
“Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.” – A.J. Jacobs
Jacobs found it impossible to not tell a lie during his month long experiment, but did cut down his lying by at least 40%. He also scared a five year-old girl, offended numerous people, and spoke about sex and attraction to the point where he felt creepy.
On the positive, being radically honest did save Jacobs time, resulting in him having to talk less to the people he didn’t want to talk to and do less of the things he didn’t want to do. It saved him mental energy by not having to choose how much he would lie or massage the truth. It also meant that people were usually more honest with him in return, and he found out that his relationships could withstand more truth telling than he expected. So, similar to the ‘Liar Liar’ take-away message, Jacobs concluded:
- Being radically honest all the time and never having a filter is likely to be inappropriate in many settings and lead to more confrontations with others, and
- We could probably benefit by being more authentic, honest and truthful with others, especially in intimate relationships, as secrets tend to weigh us down.
“There is beauty in truth, even if it’s painful. Those who lie, twist life so that it looks tasty to the lazy, brilliant to the ignorant, and powerful to the weak. But lies only strengthen our defects. They don’t teach anything, help anything, fix anything or cure anything. Nor do they develop one’s character, one’s mind, one’s heart or one’s soul.”
What is a Lie?
In his interesting small book ‘Lying’, Sam Harris defines a lie as:
“anything that is done to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” – Sam Harris
Omission vs Commission
In ‘Lying’, Sam Harris distinguishes between lies of commission, where the person is active in their intent to deceive, and the more passive act of omission, where the person fails to do something or say something that they probably should. Both commission and omission are deceptive, in that they are both misleading to the audience or person who is the target of the action or lack of action.
Harris believes that lies of commission are a more serious violation of ethics and likely to be more harmful, just like pushing someone in front of a train is a more serious ethical violation than not saving someone who was hit by a train when you had a chance to do so.
Harris argues for people to stop all forms of commission, and says that we can enhance our world, build trust and improve relationships by always being honest in our communication. While he believes that omission is also lying, he does not believe that we can or should eliminate all forms of omission. He says that “skillful truth-telling” is sometimes required, so that we can be both honest and tactful in our words and avoid causing unnecessary harm.
Lets have a look at the following three examples to see the difference between radical honesty, lying and skillful truth-telling.
SCENARIO ONE: Your husband asks if he looks fat in an outfit that you honestly believe it isn’t flattering for him. You could say:
A) “Yeah. You do look fat. I’d say about 10 pounds overweight. Maybe you should skip dessert for a while.”
B) “Not at all sweety. You look amazing!”
C) “You look nice, but I think I prefer the black jumper and blue jeans I bought you a few weeks ago. Want to try that on and see which one you feel better in?”
SCENARIO TWO: Your sister and her family are in town for the week and decide to stay at your place for the whole time because they want to save money. You don’t dislike them, but also don’t feel like you have heaps in common, and you’d really prefer to be catching up on your work that you are behind on. On night four she notices that you are a little tense and asks if you mind them staying there. You could say:
A) “I kind of do. I wish you weren’t so tight and could have paid for a hotel if you were going to stay more than 3 nights. A week is really pushing it and I’d prefer you left.”
B) “Mind? Are you kidding? I love it. The more the merrier I always say! Stay for as long as you’d like.”
C) “It’s a busy week for me in terms of work, so it wasn’t ideal timing for me. If I seem a bit tense, I’m sorry. I do want to be able to help you guys out because family means a lot to me.”
SCENARIO THREE: You’ve been unemployed for six months and get a job interview to wait tables at a restaurant in town. You’d ideally prefer an acting job. The boss of the restaurant asks what your career plans are, as they really want to hire someone who is going to stick around. You could say:
A) “Well, acting has always been my passion, so this is really just a stop-gap job to pay the bills and put food on the table. I couldn’t care less about the job or your restaurant. I just want a regular paycheck so that I can pay my rent and bills until I get a real job.”
B) “I’d love to become a professional waiter. I’ve always thought that to provide great service to people is my calling in life, and I plan on sticking around for at least five years and show everyone just how amazing your restaurant is. I’m in it for the long-haul.”
C) “I’m not too sure about what will happen with my career, but at this stage I’d really like to be able to work here. I am available seven days a week and will put in 100% effort whenever when I am on shift. I am also willing to learn whatever skills are required, and I can promise that I will give you as much notice as possible if my plans ever do change in the future.”
In each of these scenarios, A is the radically honest response, B is the active lying or commission response and C is the skillful truth-telling response. While no actual lies are being said in the C answers, not everything is being said, which is technically omission.
Many people still believe that omissions are a big no no:
“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”
“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.”
“At times to be silent is to lie. You will win because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: Reason and Right.”
“People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked…The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on…There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.”
Is it Ever Helpful to Lie to Ourselves?
The short answer is yes. It has been found that it is psychologically healthier to be slightly optimistic than to be completely realistic. Research indicates that people with depression are often more realistic in their appraisals of situations and other people’s judgments of them than people without depression. Most “healthy people” believe that, in comparison to the average person, they are better drivers, more intelligent, better workers, better parents and better lovers.
The main reasons people lie to themselves is they like to feel that they are important and maybe a little bit more unique or special than they really are. To prove this point, how would you feel if someone told you that you were just “average”? People also like to see themselves as a good person who behaves in particular ways for good reasons. Even people that consistently cause harm to themselves or others.
Anyone with an unhealthy addiction becomes an expert at lying to both themselves and others. This secrecy and dishonesty only further fuels the sense of depression, shame and guilt that people with an addiction would feel, as long as they are actually in touch with the whole truth of the situation and the consequences of their actions. Most addicts are not however, thanks to in-built defense mechanisms.
Defense mechanisms are mostly subconscious or unconscious methods that we engage in to protect our ego or positive sense of self. Some of the more famous ones are denial, humour, repression, suppression, rationalisation, intellectualisation, projection, displacement, regression, and my personal favourite, reaction formation (click here for a full description of these defense mechanisms and how to identify yours). Most people will deny engaging in defense mechanisms if you ask them directly about it, but they’ll also be able to easily tell you that other people do. The reality is we all lie to ourselves at times, and maybe we need to in order to maintain a “healthy” outlook on ourselves, others, the world and our future.
“The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.”
“I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.”
“The best lies about me are the ones I told.”
“Anybody who says they are a good liar obviously is not, because any legitimately savvy liar would always insist they’re honest about everything.”