College students lie to their mothers in 1 out of every 2 conversations (DePaulo, 1996).
20% of social exchanges spanning 10 or more minutes involve at least one lie (Costello, 2013).
You – yes YOU – have lied more times in your life than you can properly count. And so have I.
As the lying, logical creature you are, you have likely rationalized your dishonest tendencies to suit your behaviour. So, when asked the question, “Is it OK to tell a lie?” it is very likely that your answer may be, “Sometimes. It depends on the situation.” Below are the ethical, biological and social arguments against this – the argument that we should strive towards a life in which we never tell a lie. If I do a good enough job, you may just decide to join me on the difficult journey towards complete honesty.
The Rule: Never tell a lie.
Since it is inevitable that you will periodically make mistakes and lie – because you have been cultivating this habit for your entire life – it will be doubly important to make sure that you go back and correct any lies that you tell.
Additionally, understand that committing to a life without lying is not equivalent to a life in which you speak everything that is on your mind. You will not be telling everyone exactly what you are thinking at all times. This rule simply means that you will not lie. There is a huge difference.
The Reason: It hurts you and everyone involved.
Let us examine what is really going on when you tell a lie, from three perspectives: ethics, biology and sociology.
We can, hopefully, all agree that telling lies on a grand scale about important topics is not advisable. It is the “white lie,” however, that likely generates a divide in opinion. These “harmless and trivial lies,” are supposedly told to “avoid hurting someone’s feelings.” This is what we tell ourselves – that we are sparing the other person from pain. The situation below sets the scene for my argument against this view.
Damien was looking forward to coming back to university. His Christmas holiday was stressful, to say the least, as it was marred by family conflict. It was his first day back on campus, and he decided to sport a new tie-dye shirt that he had received for Christmas. As he stepped out of his residence and turned a corner, he made eye contact with his classmate, Georgia.
“Hey Damien! How was your Christmas break?”
“Oh, hey Georgia – it was great! How was yours?”
“Kind of boring, but it’s good to be back! Get anything special for Christmas?”
Damien pointed to his new shirt, “Yeah, actually, I got this cool new shirt!”
Georgia hated his shirt – he looked ridiculous in it. She looked away before she said, “Oh, nice! It looks good on you.”
“Thanks! Anyways, I’ve got to run to class, but maybe we can catch up sometime soon.” Damien had no intention of doing that – they were barely acquaintances.
“For sure. See you later, Damien!”
The situation above contains three lies. Three lies that many of us would characterize as completely harmless. And yet, I disagree.
White lying is unethical. We say that we are doing it to spare people’s feelings and make them feel better about themselves – but this is not only an arrogant position to take (who are we to make that call for them?), but it is also untrue. Who is Georgia to say that Damien cannot handle the truth about his shirt? Georgia is not being compassionate – she is being a coward. She is avoiding becoming less likeable to Damien, under the veil of “compassion.” Georgia was not even asked what she thought about the shirt, but she wanted to be viewed as sociable and kind, so she gave him an insincere compliment. So, the next time Damien is wearing a shirt that Georgia actually likes, her compliment will no longer carry any true meaning. She liked the previous shirt too, didn’t she?
Meanwhile, fortified by Georgia’s lie, Damien feels good in his shirt, and begins to wear it more often – even though he looks completely ridiculous in it. From a social perspective, Damien has been shortchanged – he would have benefitted far more in the long-run from hearing the truth. And the truth could still have been delivered in a way that is considerate of Damien’s feelings. For example, had he asked Georgia what she thought of his shirt, she may have responded, “It’s a little out there for me – but, you do you!” or “I’m personally not a big fan of tie-dye, but it’s sweet that you’re wearing what you got for Christmas!” This kind of response may have hurt Damien in the short-term, but humans are attracted to the truth – it resonates with them on a deep level. With time, he surely would have gained respect for Georgia’s honest, yet tactful response.
Damien also threw in a lie, though unprovoked, towards the end of the interaction. By telling Georgia that they should catch up sometime soon, he created an unrealistic expectation in her mind. He did this to seem friendly and more likeable. But, in the long-run, when they fail to meet up, Georgia will have lost respect for Damien – his word no longer carries as much weight as it did before the lie. Rather than making them seem closer, the distance in their relationship is now more clear than ever. There are social repercussions to white lies.
Even Damien’s dishonest response regarding the quality of his Christmas holiday has negative effects. By exclaiming that his break was great, when it really wasn’t, Damien thinks that he is “sparing Georgia the details.” But, he really has other aims. Firstly, he is subconsciously reinforcing the importance of maintaining his social image. He worries, “What would people think of me if I had a bad Christmas break?” causing him to project a deceiving self-image. This fuels his constant anxiety regarding his social status and perception. Secondly, he is adding (ever so microscopically) to a state of psychological incongruence. A term introduced by the famous psychologist Carl Rogers, incongruence describes a state in which one’s actions (or in this case, words) do not align with one’s feelings. The Rogerian view states that incongruence is the root of many, if not most, psychological problems.
White lying is not only unethical. It is not only a social deterrent. It is also profoundly negative at a biological level. Studies using functional MRI technology have analyzed the brain’s amygdala during lies. This region of the brain is associated with the feeling of guilt and shame that is supposed to accompany a lie. The more we lie – no matter how small it is – the amygdala becomes less and less active. So, in essence, our brain becomes desensitized to lying (Garrett, 2016). We become less likely to feel shame and guilt, and more likely to tell bigger and bigger lies. It is the fundamental start of pathology – a truly slippery slope.
This may all seem like splitting hairs. It may seem like an impossible task. But, I see no reason why a life without lies is not worth striving for. At the very least, this rule can be utilized as an ideal that helps us improve – one that helps us reduce our amount of lies.
The Result: If you stop lying, you will be trusted and respected.
If you want to be well-liked, this is not the path for you. There are certainly better ways to achieve that than telling the truth at every turn. However, if you want to be respected, there is no better way.
People will trust you. People will turn to you, knowing that the advice and commentary you give them is truthful; however biting that truth may be. You will create intimate relationships that are built upon honesty.
You will strive towards congruence. You will begin to hate lying, and feel a deep sense of guilt when you do so. You will speak your truths and stand by them. Your word will carry weight. Then, and only then, you will start to tell the truth.
“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.” – Ayn Rand.
1. DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 70(5), 979.
2. Costello, S. J. (2013). The truth about lying: With some differences between men and women. Dublin, Ireland: The Liffey Press.
3. Garrett, N., Lazzaro, S. C., Ariely, D., & Sharot, T. (2016). The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature neuroscience, 19(12), 1727.