“If you don’t stick to your values when tested, then they’re not values, they’re hobbies.” -Jon Stewart
I think we can all agree, people who lack integrity are corrosive and destructive forces in society (AKA wankers), but do we all have as much integrity as we expect others to have, or could we work on gradually becoming better people ourselves.
What about lying? We all do it. It’s become a type of social lubricant. A sort of community KY Jelly which helps us get on with/tolerate each other. Some people lie to safeguard feelings, while others do so to manipulate conditions for their own gain.
Why is it that most men are able to keep white lies to a minimum, while others seem to relish being dishonest at every opportunity and do so with reckless abandon?
But do we really want to eliminate lying completely? Perhaps the real question is just a matter of dosage and under what conditions.
With today’s Political Climate, it is ever more difficult to behave with integrity and remain honest when it sometimes feels like we are the only people doing so. Why should we always take the high ground on issues and ways of behaving.
Political correctness and the new “woke” culture see to it that, even when we are being tactfully honest, we can still land ourselves in hot water.
Some people unwittingly perpetuate falsehoods and beliefs that began hundreds or even thousands of years ago, while others are sucked into ridiculous conspiracy theories. I’m going to steer clear of long held beliefs and conspiracies in this post. I concur with Sam Harris here when he says, “If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?”
I am instead going to stick with ideas around how some people seem to have their integrity eroded from them and how being dishonest can affect our lives.
At what age do we begin Lying?
Around the age of 3 our brains finally work out that the thoughts we have are unknown to other people. We realise that our inner monologue is ours and ours alone. Experts call this dexterity ‘Theory of Mind’ and it’s a life changing event for a child.
It starts when we one-day notice people saying things we know not to be true. It might be that we witness someone doing something and then expressing to someone else that they did otherwise. While this merely seems confusing at first, what really throws us for a loop is that the people being lied to seem not to know, and they just believe what they are told at face value. Our little minds are intrigued with this and so, we put it to the test.
We gently begin testing the waters by telling people things that aren’t true and surprisingly, they believe us (or at least pretend to). We typically aren’t very good with lying at first (our eye contact, lack of confidence, body language and hand gestures give us away), but practise makes perfect and by the age of 4 or 5 we are quite skilled at lying or manipulating people into giving us what we want.
*As an aside, some experts have found that very small babies seem to grasp that crying attracts their parents and they begin to cry even when there’s nothing wrong. These experts feel this evidence counts as a type of manipulation but for the sake of this article, I’m going to give babies a free pass and limit dishonesties to the spoken form*
Who Lies More, Men or Women?
How much men and women speak, in general, varies with cultural norms and age. In some cultures, women speak up to 9 times more than men, in others it’s about equal, but in no culture or age group do men speak more than women.
In the west, on average, adult men speak around 7,000 words per day while women speak almost 3 times as much with 20,000 words per day.
We men apparently lie slightly more than women do even with only a third of the amount of talking, which means that we are not able to talk for as long as women do before lying about something (but that’s likely because women don’t have to keep assuring us that our pants don’t make us look fat).
When asked about the most important attributes people look for in a partner, both men and women place honesty in the top 2, and this seems to be a pretty universal requirement as one might expect.
When we get married however, almost 11% of all the lies we tell are to our partners. We seem to require honesty from our significant other but we don’t totally supply it. One might argue this falls into the social lubricant category but do we really want to be lied to by our partners? Would they appreciate it if they knew how dishonest we were being with them?
These are all questions we seem rather happy to stick our heads in the sand about. Some people surveyed said they suspected their partners told them little white lies and that they were fine about it.
I must confess, when I arrive home from gym and my partner reassures me that I don’t look like someone who’s just given birth, I know she’s talking codswallop, but it does make me feel a little better.
However, evidence suggests that people who are unfaithful are more likely to tell their partners ‘white lies’ more often than those who cheat less or not at all (so be weary of those partners that continually butter you up, there might be more than meets the eye).
Below are some of the most popular lies told today on a scale of reported severity.*
Which Professions Contain the Least & Most Trustworthy People?
Interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly, the professions with the highest number of untrustworthy people are those which require other people to like them.
Steven Covey (author of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’) told us, “it is far better to be respected than to be liked”. But it’s also far more difficult to earn people’s respect. It’s far easier skipping along the pathway of life telling people what they want to hear and pulling the wool over their eyes when it suits us.
Con-men thrive in positions where they are able to manipulate others to their benefit (a skill that is less than useless for the average Doctor or Nurse (at least one would hope). Actually, the only Dr I can think of off the top of my head (at the time of writing this) who is also a con-man is Dr Oz.
Notably, the only profession Americans find less trustworthy than Car Salesmen are Members of Congress.
And, speaking of congress… I think it’s only fitting that I reference a person who many consider to be the world champion of unsavoury characters, Donald J Trump.
Below is a chart which was compiled by The Washington Post’s Fact Checking Team and shows a daily account of President Trump’s lies from the infamous travel ban until the end of January 2020
Plato’s Food for Thought
The ‘Nature vs Nurture’ debate around character is a topic for a whole other blog, but it’s becoming more apparent through decades of study that the main thing separating honest people from dishonest people is opportunity far more than character.
‘The Ring of Gyges’ is a mythical artifact mentioned by the philosopher Plato in Book 2 of his ‘Republic’. This mythical ring grants the wearer the power of invisibility and therefore also the ability to commit acts not commensurate with honesty and decency. These acts would also obviously be carried out with complete impunity (this scenario was the basis of the books and films about the invisible man).
In the ‘Republic’, the character Socrates and Glaucon are discussing this type of dilemma in morals. Socrates indicates to Glaucon that he believes intelligent men to be innately good. Glaucon disagrees with Socrates but does so by posing a type of challenge. He indicates that the reality they currently live in is one where bad people are punished and ostracised and good people/deeds are celebrated and rewarded.
He then suggests a second scenario where, in the next reality, all bad deeds were hidden from society and someone could get away with anything he wanted. Would he then still always do the right thing? Socrates thinks about it and reveals that he believes man would still have enough integrity to always do the right thing, even if no one would ever find out about his good or bad deeds.
In the final scenario, Glaucon suggests a reality where a person could expect the opposite reaction to every deed. That is, for every good deed accomplished, the rest of the world would learn he had done wrong and for every bad deed committed, the rest of the world would learn that the man had done a great good. Glaucon then asks Socrates if he still thinks that man would have enough integrity to continue to always do the right thing.
Try to imagine these 3 scenarios for yourself. Imagine you lived in a world where your good deeds and bad deeds would never be discovered. Would this in any way change your behaviour and moral compass?
Then imagine a reality wherein the charitable things you did (although still causing good in the world) would be revealed to be misdeeds and transgressions. Conversely, every terrible act or crime you committed would be revealed to others as wonderful, virtuous actions inversely commensurate with the level of delinquency. Would you continue to always do the right thing?
How do seemingly moral people become corrupt?
When we think about lies and dishonesty, we typically think about the big stuff like the type of delinquencies perpetrated by Bernie Madoff or Charles Ponzi.
We read about the horrors enacted on people and we think that we could never act in such a way and we are stunned at how others behave. We assume they are evil and separate ourselves from the “monsters” we believe these people to be.
We all like to assume we would never become dishonest or immoral people and I’d agree that most of us could never jump with both feet into stealing people’s life savings or becoming drug dealers. But when you walk these people’s lives back to when they made the first poor decision, we see that we could easily put ourselves in that person’s shoes. And then, incrementally, the poor decisions compound until you’re in a pickle.
Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology at Duke University, likes to use the example of Joseph M. Papp when illustrating how easily it is for an otherwise normal and intelligent person to lose their way.
Typically, when I tell people the story of Joe Papp, the way they feel about Joe depends on whether I walk the story back from when things fell apart, or tell it from the beginning of his downward spiral (if in fact I am able to even identify the beginning).
I’ve decided to begin with the latter here and I would encourage you to also share the story, but alternate between telling it forward and backward to see what a difference framing makes to people’s levels of empathy.
Joe was a keen and fairly successful cyclist who took a break from the sport and completed his BA in History (summa cum laude) from the University of Pittsburgh where he was elected to ‘Phi Beta Kappa’. He was a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs and graduate student in Carnegie Mellon University.
Joe was a really bright student and even considered pursuing a career with the CIA (and actually interviewed for a position in the Directorate of Operations in 2000) but he ultimately returned to professional cycling in 2001.
Try as he might though, he just didn’t seem to be on the same level as the other cyclists. During a routine check-up with his doctor, Joe mentioned he was having to work really hard and didn’t seem to be able to keep up with the other cyclists. His doctor gave him a prescription for some EPO and told him to take it frequently indicating it would help with his energy levels.
The doctor mentioned EPO was a drug typically given to cancer patients, also for energy.
*EPO basically increases the production of red blood cells*
Joe shoots off to the pharmacy to collect his prescribed medication which the pharmacist happily gives to him. His insurance company covers the meds, he pays the deductible and he goes home to begin taking the EPO.
It works really well and Joe incorporates EPO as part of his lifestyle and training regimen. The doctor is also pleased that the drug is helping Joe and continues to prescribe it for him.
Then Joe moves to another cycling team where he discovers that all the riders use EPO. This team are actually even more open about taking EPO publicly and he basically accepts this as the norm.
Then there is a shortage of EPO, but a friend of Joe’s knows someone in China who works at a factory and who can buy it for Joe and ship it to him. So, Joe imports enough to tide him over the shortage and all is well again.
But then Joe tells his friends and teammates that he is able to get the EPO from China and they ask him to also import it for them with his usual package. Joe is a team player and he is good friends with all of these people so he begins importing for them and eventually helping out many more people as the shortage continues. Everyone receiving the product is happy as they are getting a good clean product at a much better price and Joe too is pleased because he is putting a healthy mark-up on the imports for his troubles.
Everything is going well and everyone is happy. Except now Joe is a major drug dealer and is suddenly made to pay a terrible price for this.
If we are originally told that Joe Papp was this major drug dealer and we are asked if we could ever become such a person, of course we say “No!”
However, if we walk back along the path Joe took to becoming this drug dealer, where on that path would you have made a different choice?
Your doctor prescribes a legal medication for you to solve a problem. Nobody questions a doctor giving you medication. You do what you’re told and take the medication, you feel better so you keep taking it. The doctor continues to prescribe it for you, all your peers are using it and to continue being competitive you need to take it too.
Then there is a shortage, you make a plan through a friend to import some for yourself. A teammate asks you for some, then another. Pretty soon you’re supplying the whole team. Then 1 more person asks you, and you’re already importing so much and making a little cash doing it, so you agree. Then another asks you, then another…
Where along that journey should Joe, or would you, have stopped?
It’s Never Okay to Lie (According to Sam Harris)
Sam Harris (a PHD Neuroscientist who I have mentioned in a previous post), takes a fairly brutal stance on lying. When Sam was 18, he took an ethics course in which they discussed dishonesty, shortly after which Sam embarked on a path where he did his very best never to lie.
Sam is now a popular public figure. He has a successful podcast, a meditation app, is a bestselling author and frequently speaks to packed auditoriums all around the world. There are countless videos of him on YouTube watched by millions and he claims to always be truthful both in public and in his private life. Many have tried, but, to this day, none have ever been able to catch him being dishonest.
So why does Sam Harris place so much value on always being so completely honest?
Sam has a very interesting viewpoint on the subject. In his opinion, the reason most of us tell little white lies is because we think we’re doing a good deed, or being mindful and compassionate of another person’s feelings.
But he says that when we look closely at the circumstances around lying to, or misleading someone, we discover that our actions are quite obviously motivated by an inner personal fear with that person. He believes that, by lying to this person, we yield to, and perpetuate that fear, allowing the relationship to conform to it.
Then, when we’re found out, we discover that we have diminished the trust in that relationship and the trust the person had for us, even if the person was initially consoled by the white lie. There is a psychological cost about concealing our feelings in the presence of certain people and we shouldn’t want to continue to pay this cost.
In Sam’s book, “Lying”, he observes how we worry that telling the truth doesn’t paint us in a great light and often places us in an awkward situation. We imagine the lies are protecting us or the person being lied to but what it really does, in many cases, is prevents the other person getting an honest look at what our situation actually is.
When asked what he would do if a friend asked him to read a book that he found terrible, Sam’s reply was thought provoking.
He acknowledged that most people would either lie about how they felt or try avoid saying anything at all and went on, “What you need to say is the truth, you can preface it with, ‘this is just my opinion’ but you need to say I really think it’s terrible. I think you need to tear this work down to its studs and potentially begin again if you are to have any success here. If you’re a true friend, this is what you need to do. If you say it’s great and it goes out into the world and everyone hates it, you become useless to that friend and have revealed yourself to be dishonest”
Friends and Family
I recall once being in the company of a friend and having the experience of overhearing them on the phone to another mutual friend. They said that they couldn’t make a lunch because their child was very ill. I knew this to be untrue and I was suddenly in the uncomfortable position of being pulled into a lie.
I was taken back at the fact that the friend had lied but more so at how easily they had done it. The lie just ran off their tongue with no noticeable change in pitch or tone. I found myself being equal parts horrified and impressed.
But my friend immediately and unwittingly paid the price of losing my trust (and, as it turned out, future friendship). I immediately saw them in a different light and began wondering how many times I had been on the receiving end of such an effortless and creative story. Surely their creativeness wasn’t confined to excuses and also bled into other parts of their lives. The mutual friend on the other end of the phone was blissfully unaware of being lied to and experienced no change in their friendship.
This type of lie inevitably leads to more lying when the person is again asked to lunch the following week and the week after that. And I certainly wasn’t going to jeopardise my friendship with the mutual friend by continuing the lie I had been privy to.
Why not say, “I’m terribly sorry, I’m just not keen, but thank you so much for asking”.
This type of honesty is a little uncomfortable for sure, and you may lose a friend, but do you really want to continue being friends with someone you don’t want to hang out with, or someone you feel the need to lie to? How is that healthy for either of you?
Family can be trickier, especially during gatherings like Thanksgiving and Christmas when it is the most tempting to placate family with comforting fibs. You can of course just be tactful and non-engaging or reply with, “I really don’t have a great deal to say about that”.
If someone says how much money are you making with your new online business venture, you can certainly be honest and just say I don’t want to tell you that information or that’s information I’d rather not divulge.
I am not suggesting that we all go home for Christmas and take on old Uncle Nige about his latest conspiracy theory, but we can move a relationship and our lives to being more and more honest incrementally and deal with the consequences as they arrive. Certainly, if the relationship is important, it should be important to improve it any way you can, and lying more surely isn’t improving it.
It can also be fun playing with the uncomfortable edge of this thing. You can be more honest about certain things than people are expecting you to be. What’s important in these circumstances, certainly in the relationships that matter is that you’re on the same team. You’re trying to have a better relationship not stir up trouble.
The Virtues of Deception
When I was 23, I required surgery on my right foot after I managed to crush it in an accident. For 2 months after the surgeries I was left with numerous large pins, embedded in, and running the length of the bones of my foot and ankle.
The pins protruded about half an inch from the front and side of my foot. The ends of the pins that stuck out were bent at a 90-degree angle and every 2 weeks the surgeon would take off the cast and twist the pins with pliers (which he told me he did so that they wouldn’t fuse into the bone they were imbedded in). He said this would make it easier when it came time to pulling the pins out.
The twisting of the pins every 2 weeks was pretty uncomfortable. They did not twist easily. The surgeon had to use both hands to turn them, so the thought of those long pins being pulled out from the middle of all the bones was fairly terrifying.
When he first told me why he was twisting the pins, I asked him about the day he would take the pins out. He assured me that he would give me a little injection and I wouldn’t feel a thing and for the next 2 months, I was blissfully unaware of the hell that awaited me on the day the pins were finally extracted.
The surgeon clearly lied to me. He had no doubt pulled many a pin from bones and knew what I was in for, but he chose to lie to me.
Had he told me exactly what I could expect on D-day, I would have experienced 2 full months of panic attacks and very little sleep (on top of what I was dealing) which would have gradually gotten worse the closer we got to the extractions. The Dr knew this of course and definitely did the right thing by lying to me.
Professor Dan Ariely (who has had to overcome unimaginable pain and trauma after an accident at 17 left him with 3rd degree burns over 70% of his body) has said publicly that, had his doctors been open and honest with him about the monumental tasks that lay before him in the way of recovery and painful surgeries, he would almost certainly have taken it upon himself to end his suffering
A few years ago, Professor Ariely was asked to write a letter of encouragement to a young burn victim about the future and a little about what he himself had overcome.
The exercise was pure torture for Professor Ariely as he found himself being torn between his moral obligation to be honest with the young victim and the truth about the full brutality of the many years that lay ahead of him.
Whether it’s lying to others or lying to ourselves, I do think we weave tangled webs and that our lives would be better with less of it.
Lies are a little like sugar. The less of it we have in our lives the fewer problems we seem to have all round.
And integrity. I’ve often read that integrity is what you do even if you think no one is ever going to find out. But integrity is more than that. It’s a closeness of fit between what we would say to someone’s face and what we would say about them when we leave the room.
If there is a real distance there, then firstly, they’re not a very good friend and secondly, you never actually know how the person actually feels about you. These people likely have morals that are more flexible than an Olympic gymnast. Is that really the type of people we want to associate with?
There is an immense power and security in having integrity. People stop turning to you for comforting falsehoods and when you speak, people listen because they know what is coming out of your mouth has been self-vetted. If everything you say is useful, true and necessary, people will hang on every word and you will command the respect you expect from people. Isn’t that the type of man we would all like to be?
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