by Larry P. Johnson
Reprinted from “The San Antonio Express-News,” Sept. 26, 2020.
Are “white lies” OK to spare someone’s feelings? Do we expect politicians to lie to us? When does exaggerating the truth become untruthful? Did George Washington really never tell a lie?
Deception refers to the act — big or small, cruel or kind — of causing someone to believe something untrue. Even the most honest people practice deception, with various studies showing that the average person lies several times a day, according to a report in Psychology Today.
The formal study of deception was once the domain of ethicists and theologians, but more recently, psychologists are turning their attention to why people lie and the conditions that make them more likely to do so.
Why do we lie?
“Some people lie for the sheer thrill of getting away with it, testing their unsuspected power,” psychologist Paul Ekman says. “Some people do this all the time, enjoying the power they obtain in controlling the information available to others.”
Avoiding embarrassment or punishment is another motive for lying.
“The child who claims the wet seat resulted from spilling a glass of water and not from wetting his pants is one example of lying,” Ekman says.
Also, people will lie to get out of an awkward social situation. They will claim “I can’t get a babysitter” to avoid an evening with boring friends.
Then, there are the deceptions motivated by politeness. “Thanks so much for the lovely party,” or “that color looks good on you.” But are these lies? Ekman considers these not to be lies any more than “bluffing in poker” or “acting in a play” are lying.
“In all of these instances, we do not expect to be told the truth. And because we know this, that ‘lying’ is OK,” Ekman says.
So, is it OK for our elected officials to lie to us? No one likes being deceived, and when public figures are caught in a lie, it can result in a huge loss of trust.
“When people rationalize and lie in small ways, it affects their whole identity, because if they are going to do bad things, they need to lie to themselves and to others to get there,” says bestselling author and neuroscientist Sam Harris.
On the other hand, Harris says, we can greatly simplify our lives and improve society overall by telling the truth in situations where others often lie: “When someone acts upon their impulse to be honest, whether in a compliment or a confession, good things happen.”
But while many people pride themselves on their scrupulous honesty — and try to distance themselves from individuals who are more comfortable with falsehoods — the truth is that everyone lies. Some experts suggest that a certain amount of deception is necessary to maintain a healthy, functioning society.
Of course, deception is not always toward others. There are the lies people tell themselves, ranging from those to prop up their self-esteem to serious delusions beyond their control. While lying to oneself is generally thought to be harmful, certain kinds of self-deceptions can have a positive effect on overall well-being — like believing one can accomplish a difficult goal even if evidence appears to be to the contrary. So, maybe I can, after all, one day, still become a movie star?
And that’s how I see it.