Some people lie a lot, but most of us lie a little; it is ever okay, or is it always better to tell the truth?
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Some people lie a lot, but most of us lie a little. So, why do we do it? And is it ever okay, or is it always better to tell the truth?  

Psychologist Dan Ariely spent years studying lying and cheating, and found that many of us engage in dishonest behaviours but only in very small ways. He tested 30,000 people for cheating behaviours (for example lying about their scores on maths problems to get more money) and found that only 12 cheated a lot, but 18,000 people cheated just a little. He explains that people want two things: to feel good about ourselves (believing we are honest decent people) and also to benefit from being dishonest. Because of the way our minds work, it’s possible to have both of these if we are dishonest just little and if we can rationalise our behaviour.  

C  The most common reason for lying is to get some kind of benefit, according to writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee. This could be a financial benefit, like in Ariely’s studies, or it could be lying to make ourselves look better. In his article in National Geographic, Bhattacharjee adds that another common reason people lie is to protect themselves, for example hiding mistakes or lying to avoid other people. He explains that when we lie, we do it to achieve some goal, and quotes psychologist Tim Levine, who says that we lie when honesty won’t work.  

Some lies seem more acceptable than others – lying to protect yourself doesn’t seem as bad as lying to get money, for example. And one conclusion that Ariely drew was that people tend to find dishonest behaviour more acceptable when it is a step removed from money (in his cheating studies, people cheated more when they received a token that could be exchanged for money). To make this clearer, he gives the example of the difference between taking a pencil from the office and taking a small amount of money from the office to buy a pencil. The first scenario would seem more acceptable to most people, as there is less of a clear connection to money. It’s probably also easier to rationalise, Ariely says, as some people might feel like the stationary is a perk of the job. 

E  One form of lying that many people think is acceptable is telling white lies. These are lies that are told to prevent other people from being hurt, embarrassed or scared – think about your grandmother cooking you a meal that tastes bad, and then asking you how the food is; how would you answer? Would you lie to her to spare her feelings, or would you try to find some way to tell the truth? An article in The Conversation suggests that it might be better to say it tastes good, explaining that white lies are an important part of our social fabric, useful for managing and maintaining relationships, and that even more serious lies in the right situation can prevent suffering and harm. 

F  Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris disagrees with this. On his podcast, and in his book Lying, he makes the argument that it’s almost always better to tell the truth, and explains that when you lie to someone, it’s like you’re no longer on the same team: when lying, your wish to avoid awkwardness is competing against real connection to the other person and what they feel they need to know about the world. He adds that even when telling white lies and believing we are doing it to benefit our friends or loved ones, we are actually preventing them from knowing the truth about themselves, and their lack of knowledge might have negative consequences for them. 

G  Sam argues that lying should only be used in extreme circumstances, and that telling the truth is a habit to practise, adding that if you are consistently honest, the people in your life will have more confidence in you, as they will know that you will never lie to them and that any praise you give will be genuine. Psychotherapist Brad Blanton agrees with this, arguing that lying is the biggest source of human stress, and to become psychologically healthy, we need to be truthful, especially in relationships that are important.  

Sam’s idea about being honest as much as you can does seem like something to work towards, and I’m left thinking about the quote from Tim Levine about lying when honesty won’t work; perhaps in some situations we just think it won’t work, or perhaps not. 

IELTS Reading Questions for Lying:
Matching Headings & Sentence Completion.

Sources and links from Lying

– Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational.
Article in National Geographic by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.
Article in The Conversation about how lying be good for society. 
Sam Harris’ website. The information in this article came from his book, Lying and from his podcasts.
– Brad Blanton’s Radical Honesty website. 
– Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay 

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. ben

    Hello. May I ask what does it means that “Lies that hold things together”?, as well as why does this matched to paragrah E which mainly talks about white lies can prevent people from being hurt, and maintain relationships. Thank you.

    1. Nick

      Hi Ben
      From Cambridge dictionary, hold something together means, ‘to keep (a group or organization) complete or in its original state or condition’.
      The lies that ‘hold things together’ are white lies (or ‘even more serious lies’). Paragraph E is all about white lies, including what function they serve: preventing people from being hurt, and it concludes with the idea that white lies are important in society and useful for maintaining relationships – i.e. these lies help to hold our social relationships together.
      Hope that helps.

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