Are people lying more, or are more people just getting caught? Maybe it’s both.
The fact is everybody lies. I recently read that children start lying at around age 4 or 5, when they become aware of the use and the power of language to get things. As they grow older, parents teach children to tell “white lies” or “good lies” to protect people’s feelings. We call this being polite. “Yes, those white socks, sandals and shorts are very attractive on Uncle Bob, aren’t they, Sally?” In addition to “white lies,” there are several other popular types of lies with intent, including bold-faced lies, lies of embellishment and lies of omission.
WHY do people lie?
In many cases, it is easier to lie than to tell the truth. When I think about why people lie, I come up with five motivations.
For adults, politeness trumps straight talk. It’s not just lying about Uncle Bob’s style of dress. Organizations are full of polite people who withhold how they feel or what they think for fear of offending someone and creating conflict. Disagreement or contention is often mistaken for disrespect. Straight talk is not for public consumption. However, “polite cultures” can easily become passive aggressive organizations that look happy on the surface but feel inauthentic.
Recognizing our flaws is not easy, but admitting them to others can be difficult. Lying about our weaknesses may allow us to save face or to look good. Some people may perceive a lie as harmless; others may have a different perception.
Many people lie for personal gain or to avoid punishment. In these situations, people think or hope they can get away with the lie. A few become habitual or pathological liars. For them, lying often gets worse with the passage of time. When someone gets away with a lie, it often impels the person to continue their deceptions. In turn, liars often find themselves perpetrating more untruths to cover themselves. Habitual liars see lying as a game. How much can I get away with? These liars build a web of deceit around much of what they do.
Some people lie to influence others’ opinions or actions. They may make promises that they cannot keep in order to get someone to act on their behalf. Some may speak half-truths to sway others to their way of thinking; or they may figure if they a repeat a lie enough times, people will start believing it as the truth.
In other situations lies may be told instead of the truth in hopes of obtaining the acceptance of others by telling them what you think they want to hear. Some lie to manipulate or control others by turning people against each other. For example, someone may lie to start a rumor in hopes of damaging someone else’s reputation or bolstering their own. When children do this, we call it bullying. When adults do this, we call it politics.
Some of our lies don’t involve others. Self-deception is about the lies we tell ourselves. We like to think that we are always right-that we know the truth and always do the right thing.
No matter what the motivation we generally don’t like being lied to.
HOW do we relate to liars?
We dislike liars because the lies break trust. When a person lies, that person has broken a bond-an unspoken agreement to treat others as we would like to be treated. Lying also violates the value of honesty. If you lie to me once, how do I know when to believe you? Serious deception often makes it impossible for us to trust that person again.
Interestingly, we hold different people to different standards when it comes to telling the truth. We expect, for example, less honesty from politicians than from scientists. We have a vision of purity about those who are doing research, while we imagine that politicians will at least shade the truth about themselves in order to get elected. Unfortunately, our culture has become increasingly tolerant of deception.
Because the issue of trust is on the line, coming clean about the lie as soon as possible is the best way to mend fences. But many people lie about the lie. If the truth comes out only once, it is forced; repair of trust is far less likely. Think of the number of political leaders who got in trouble not by the lie but by the cover-up of the lie.
BUT, honest still trumps lying
So if everyone lies, how do we know who to believe? Should we be skeptical of what everyone says? Prolonged skepticism leads to cynicism. I’m sure you know people who constantly have their guard up. They trust few. Fortunately most of us believe that people are inherently well meaning, especially our friends and family. We rely on their trust and honesty to cope with the uncertainties of life. In the end I believe that honesty trumps lying. Don’t you agree?