Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why We Lie

            Everybody tells lies at one time or another. What’s that you say? Not you? You never lie? Keep reading. Let’s see if you still believe that by the end of this piece.

            I have often made the bold statement, “If you don’t want to hear the truth, don’t ask me any questions.” The fact is I firmly believe in telling the truth. It has always been important to me. However, telling the truth is not always as valiant as it seems, especially when it can be spiteful or hurtful. Let’s examine the many and varied reasons people lie.

            Here are a few bullet points about why we lie:

·         To avoid punishment

·         To avoid embarrassment

·         For personal gain

·         To get out of doing something

·         To cover up an indiscretion

·         To protect of help someone else

·         To avoid confrontation

·         Out of anger or spite (or to be hurtful)

·         Lies of omission. Things unsaid

·         Lying for fun (Practical jokes)

·         To make people like us

·         To influence a decision

·         To get sympathy

·         Out of habit. An addiction to lying

·         The inability to accept the truth. Lying to ourselves


When we think about the lies that people tell perhaps the first thing we think of is the criminal who lies to avoid prosecution and punishment for crimes against society. These are usually considered the most despicable and hurtful of all lies.

            What is the first thing most criminals do when confronted with accusations of a crime? They deny culpability. It doesn’t matter if they are guilty or not, the first response is to deny, deny, deny. They simply do not want to be punished.

            It is much like the child who broke the lamp and refused to confess to it. Mom heard the crash and Johnny was the only one in the room at the time.

“Johnny. Did you break the lamp?”

“No, Ma. It just fell over on its own.” Lie number one

“Were you throwing the ball inside again?”

“No, Ma. Honest, I wouldn’t.” Lie number two.

“So, how did the ball wind up under the lampshade?

“I have no idea.”

You get the picture.

So, lawbreakers (even breakers of Mom’s law) will lie and proclaim their innocence until evidence becomes so overwhelming that further denial proves futile. Of course, if they are indeed innocent their denial is not a lie regardless of the evidence against them. In Johnny’s case perhaps it was the law of gravity that caused the lamp to teeter and fall on top of the ill-placed ball. Probably not.

Everyone from time to time finds themselves in an embarrassing situation. Some more than others. Society places morals and mores on us that we are expected to follow. When we deviate we are subject to criticism, scorn and even exclusion. It is only natural that we would want to avoid such situations. So, we lie. We deny. We cover. We rationalize, claim extenuating circumstances or blame others.

There is a fine line here between right and wrong and each of us must decide when and where to cross it. Embarrassment can come in many degrees. From something as mundane as, “Who broke wind?” “Oh it must have been the dog.” To “Have you been having an affair?” or “Did you lie to the Grand Jury?”

There are even times when the guilt resulting from embarrassment can precipitate irrational acts such as suicide. But those are extreme cases. Suffice it to say that embarrassment is, at best, a temporary and situational issue. It should not define a person. And while some angst is expected, our shoulders should be broad enough that we don’t allow it to label us. It is better to own it and move on.

Personal gain may be the catch-all of all reasons to lie. Whether we are looking to score a big payday that will set us up for life or just take the last cookie in the jar without getting caught, the goal is to succeed at any cost. If that means lying, misdirecting, pointing an accusing finger or any other device other than being totally honest, so be it.

In this I don’t mean to infer that people are inherently perpetual liars. I prefer to believe that most people are basically honest, at least to a point, most of the time. However, I have known people who would steal candy from a child and, as before, blame it on the dog rather than accept responsibility for their actions. Sad, but true.

Most people have, at one time or another, told that little white lie to get out of doing something. Maybe you called in sick to work when you weren’t really sick. You just had something else you wanted or needed to do that day. Perhaps you just couldn’t stand the idea of another dinner date with the in-laws so you made up an excuse to cancel. What’s the harm?

So what if you’re calling in on the busiest day of the month and others have to do both their jobs and yours? Big deal if the in-laws went out and purchased non-refundable theatre tickets to the hottest show in town as a surprise gift for you? As long as you can soothe your conscience and justify your reasons for your prevarication, you should be good to go. Right? Maybe not.

Many lies are used to cover up an indiscretion. The most notable of these, or perhaps the most notorious, is the extramarital affair. Cheating on any level (at cards, at sports, on taxes) is always bad. But cheating on a spouse is just deplorable. Not only are you breaking a vow to be faithful, you are breaking the trust of the most important person in your life.

It is true that marriage can change a person. Relationships grow and people often grow apart. Circumstances can bring friction and discontent to the table. There are far too many things that can happen in a marriage the might precipitate an infidelity and I am not trying to make a case for or against it. That is not my purpose. But these indiscretions are fertile seed for lies and deception.

On the flip side you might find those intrepid individuals who lie to protect or to help someone else. One might feel a certain nobility in taking the blame for something they didn’t do so that the guilty party does not have to face the repercussions of their actions. While it may be noble to throw yourself under the proverbial bus to protect your buddy, your sibling, you child or others it is still a lie that can often backfire and only compile the problem.

I think it’s safe to say that most people like to avoid confrontation. Unfortunately, this does not apply to everyone. When we come in contact with one of those confrontational individuals or circumstances thrust us unwittingly into confrontation, we may find ourselves spouting declarations that we cannot substantiate and know are untrue. Anger can be a cruel mistress that makes people say things in haste they might otherwise have kept to themselves. The wisdom in winning an argument is to let cooler heads prevail and let the facts speak for themselves. If this doesn’t work, simply walk away.

Of course, a big element of confrontation is our old friend anger. We’ve all heard the old axiom, “many a truth is spoken in jest.” Well, I’m here to tell you that many a lie is spoken in anger. Let’s face it. When we get angry we tend to lash out without thinking things through. We want to say hurtful and spiteful things that will diminish our adversary’s position even if their argument is right and just. We’re just so damned mad.

As I said, most people are not naturally confrontational. We often go out of our way to make people like us. We may even go so far as to lie in order to inflate our image so more people will like us. It’s like enhancing your job resume to make it appear more appealing to potential employers.

You want them to like you. So what if you embellish a bit? As long as you get the job, what’s the harm? The harm is that you are masquerading as someone you are not. What happens when you get the job and it is found that you are not qualified to do it?

What happens when someone lies to influence a decision? This harkens back to the old personal gain syndrome. You see it a lot in politics and advertising. Your plumber may exaggerate a simple routine repair to tack on hundreds of dollars onto your bill. Your car dealer might sell you on a number of superfluous extras to inflate the purchase price or undercut your trade-in value to his advantage. They are all trying to influence your decision to their own benefit. Of course, these are only a few examples. No doubt you can think of many more.

It isn’t always what is said that can be construed as a lie. Quite often it is a matter of what goes unsaid. Lies of omission can be the most hurtful of all, not to mention the most difficult to detect. Perfect example:

Two lawyers (prosecution and defense) arguing back and forth, each desperately pleading their case, each presenting facts in evidence but only facts that support their argument. The reason there has to be two advocates is because neither side can be depended upon to present both sides, and each side will do everything possible to punch holes in the stories presented by their opponent. Sorting out the truth and coming to a unanimous decision can often become a daunting task.

Naturally, not all lies involve life and death consequences. Take the good old practical joke for example. I’m not a big fan of practical jokes, but some people literally thrive on them.

Let’s say someone buys you a scratch off lottery ticket with a top prize of $10,000.00. You are skeptical of your chances but accept the gift and proceed to scratch off the squares. Low and behold you find that you have won the top prize. Why not? Somebody has to win. It might as well be you.

Your joy and excitement bubbles over much to the delight of your benefactor until you turn the ticket over to find out how to claim your prize. “Redeemable at your Momma’s house, you big dumbass.” Laughter and guffaws all around from everyone except you, the victim. The practical joke considered to be so funny is based on a preplanned lie.

There are some people who stoop to lies to garner sympathy from others. Poor, poor pitiful me is no excuse for lying. If the truth of your situation is insufficient to earn sympathy without embellishment, you owe it to yourself and everyone else to keep quiet and not make stuff up.

Of course, there are some who just can’t help themselves. They lie out of habit. It becomes an addiction, especially if they don’t get caught in their deceits. Telling falsehoods and getting away with it can become a way of life for some. The problem is, people, in the long run, are not stupid. “Fool me once, shame on me…” you know the old saying. People who habitually lie will eventually be caught and perpetually tagged for it, even if they eventually change their ways.

Then there are people who simply are unable to accept the truth. They may know the truth but continue to deny it because it does not fit into their agenda. By denying the truth when we know the truth, we are simply living a lie.

That’s my list. All of the reasons for lying I can think of. No doubt there are others. You may have your own list, but in all likelihood, any other reason can be linked back to one or more of those listed above.

So, why talk about reasons for lies in a book expounding the virtues of truth> very simple. By debugging the reasons for lying we reveal the seamy underbelly of deceit and potential for evil. Even those lies with virtuous purpose (lying to protect others) can have serious side effects and need to be considered with great discretion.

The bottom line will usually be that truth is simplistic, basic and easy if applied consistently across the board. Lies only tend to complicate a situation, create doubt and confusion and result in a loss of trust.

It’s your choice.                      

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