In a world that becomes more dishonest by the day, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
“Why would you admit that?!”, my mother boomed at me, “She didn’t know until you told her. Now one of us has to take off work to pick you up. You have to smarten up.” The thing the teacher didn’t know was that I hadn’t done my homework, a fact she likely would have overlooked if I hadn’t brought it up, and so I was destined for detention, when I could have simply kept my trap shut and saved everyone a lot of trouble.
It wasn’t the first time my honestly had become a detriment, and it wouldn’t be the last. Growing up, I was brutally honest, foolishly generous, and heartrendingly sensitive. And like many other chronically honest children, at some point, I found myself faced with a decision — adapt to the jungle or get eaten by the lions.
By adapting, and learning to lie well, we gain many things: the ability to fit into society better, to get out of trouble, to shift the blame, to make ourselves feel better, and even to make others feel better. In some ways, it really can feel like “smartening up.” As we get older, we also realize we have the ability to persuade, to sell, to confuse, and to manipulate. We gain much.
What we lose is far more precious.
Why We Lie
Most sociologists agree that lying is part of a child’s personality by age four, and many are mixed on the effect of learning to lie well as a child. Many mental health practitioners consider it a positive survival instinct, and it’s easy to understand why. Why would anyone go to detention if they had another option?
According to the Psychology Today article, “The Truth About Lying”, we receive mixed messages about lying almost from birth. Our families usually tell us as children to be honest, and that lying never pays, but society teaches us a different lesson from a very early age. According to the article, Leonard Saxe, Ph.D., a polygraph expert and professor of psychology at Brandeis University, says, “Lying has long been a part of everyday life. We couldn’t get through the day without being deceptive.”
And as adults the stakes get higher. Why do we lie as adults? According to the National Geographic article “Why We Lie: the Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways”, 22% -the single largest percentage-of lies are told to cover up a misdeed, and 16% of lies are for economic advantage. We may tell ourselves that we’re lying to spare others’ feelings, but according to the study, those lies account for less than 2% of lies told.
It’s no wonder we learn early in our lives that those who tell us lying doesn’t pay may be the biggest fibbers of all. In fact, most of us learn to lie from authority figures, such as parents, bosses, teachers, celebrities, religious leaders, health care providers, and politicians, and from them we learn that lying often pays handsomely.
Some are of course bigger offenders than others, and their lies have national and international ramifications. Charles Ponzi, a 1920s swindler who promised investors a 100% profit in 90 days on postal reply coupons, is so famous for his lies, his scheme is named after him. The 1919 World Series White Sox team, better known as the Black Sox, conspired with gangsters to purposely lose games, then lied about it. The guilty players were banned from baseball for life.
More recently, Andrew Wakefield, the former anti-vaccine advocate, admitted he falsified a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, but not before his lies led to a decrease in vaccinations and an increase in mumps and rubella outbreaks worldwide. Some lies are so well known, they will forever be associated with the fibber in question. History won’t soon forget Nixon’s vow “I am not a crook”, or Bill Clinton’s phrase, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
For most of us, our lies don’t affect the lives of millions of people, but we shouldn’t start patting ourselves on the back for our honesty just yet. According to the Mentalfloss article “60% of People Can’t Go 10 Minutes Without Lying” from 2012, 40% of Americans lie on resumes, while a startling 90% lie on online dating profiles. That’s quite a high percentage for a time before anyone used the term “post-factual America.” Lying seems to become more widespread every day. At all levels of society, lies are often seen as the price of doing business.
Thinking Twice About the “Benefits” of Lying
Given how popular lying is, perhaps the most remarkable part of the National Geographic study is researcher Tim Levine’s quote, “We lie if honesty won’t work.” If lying is so popular, so widespread, and so effective, why do we even bother to try to tell the truth? Why turn to lying only when honesty doesn’t work? And why do we feel guilt and shame when we lie if lying is nothing but a positive survival instinct? While there has been plenty of research on who lies and why, there has been little on why we tell the truth.
As lying becomes more of a staple of our society, and an encouraged practice from the top down, it may seem silly or disadvantageous to practice honesty. But is the concept that lying is necessary the biggest falsehood of all? It may be worth taking the time to examine what lies do to us- spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
Enter a book written in 1997, a staple on the shelves of psychologists, therapists, and spiritual teachers everywhere — Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. There have been many books, and a lot of discussion in the past twenty years, about the concept of creating one’s own reality — the idea that through word and deed you draw certain people to you, certain opportunities, and create a good or bad life for yourself depending on your own actions, and even thoughts.
This book was a groundbreaking treatise on the topic. The first of the four agreements is: “Be impeccable with your word.” It sounds archaic, silly even in this modern age. But Don Miguel Ruiz believes so strongly in this tenant, he said, making that one change alone could make a heaven of hell. This can have many different facets to it from telling the truth to refusing to gossip to stopping negative self-talk. It takes courage to speak into truth and love, instead of playing the blame game and spreading negativity.
As Ruiz points out, words have been used to cure and have been used to cause disease, racism, misogyny, hatred, even kill millions and lead countries to war. Before readers dismiss these ideas as new age claptrap, this isn’t first time a spiritual teacher has stressed the importance of “the word.”
In Taoism, the Tao itself is defined as the word, the way, or the path. In Judaism, according to Pslam 33:9, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made.” In Buddhism, the words and teachings of Buddha are known as “dharma” and are central to Buddhist life.
In Christianity, the Bible is considered the word of God, and understanding Scripture is central to Christian life. If heaven and earth were made by “the Word”, words seem to be pretty darn important. All of these sources would seem to vindicate Ruiz’s suggestion that our reality is built from our words. Words have been very important for very long time, as has the concept of being as good as your word.
How Health Is Impacted by Lying
We know there are negative emotional and spiritual consequences to lying, but are there negative physical consequences? According to the U.S. News and World Report article “How Lying Affects Your Health”, when one group of people was instructed to tell fewer lies over the course of a week, their health benefited. The study found that “In fact, telling three fewer minor lies a week translated to four fewer mental health complaints, and three fewer physical complaints.”
The health complaints may have been related to all the stress and energy required to keep lies going. A Psychology Today article “Want a Longer Healthier Life? Stop Lying”, suggests lying causes chronic stress, which is responsible for long-term memory loss, depleted fertility, loss of bone density, and can cause Type 2 diabetes, clinical depression, and premature aging. Yikes. (If you want to know what stress does to the body, just look at pictures of presidents before and after they served.) We also lose perhaps our most valuable possession to stress — innocence and love of life, which once lost, can feel impossible to regain.
Catching a Liar
Many may say they only need to lie a few times for a financial benefit or to get out of trouble, and will break the habit, but that’s rarely the case. One lie has to become many to maintain the sense of believability.
This builds a lifelong habit that can not only damage physical, mental, and spiritual well-being, but may also backfire. The majority of liars get caught, even in small lies. According to Career Builder.com, 75% of HR managers easily spot lies on resumes.
There is also a plethora of articles online about how to spot liars, and symptoms of lying include inability to meet another person’s eyes, restlessness, and defensiveness. Guilt over lying often emerges as anger, a tell-tale sign you may be speaking with someone playing loose with the facts, and the louder and more vehemently a person defends themselves, the more likely they’re lying. In fact, over half of liars start their lie with “To be honest…” The ramifications of getting caught in a lie can include everything from being fired to loss of a relationship to ending up in jail.
So Why Do We REALLY Lie?
Science has pinpointed many definitive reasons why we lie, such as to get out of trouble and for financial gain. But if we dig deeper, since we know lying actually rarely pays in the long run, why do we REALLY lie if we know better? We probably lie for the same reason we have that drink or that cheeseburger, even though we know we shouldn’t —
because it seems easier, faster, and more efficient, because we often choose short-term pleasure over long-term evolution and growth. Few people are immune to taking the easy way out occasionally, and lying seems to simply be part of the human condition.
Why Bother Quitting?
If everyone lies, why bother trying to stop? In addition to the mental, physical, and emotional health-related drawbacks to lying, we may want to pause to consider what kind of world we’re creating. If Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, as well as nearly every single spiritual practice on the planet, is to be believed, we create our daily reality or our “heaven or hell” through our own actions, through our own words. If we take a look around us, we see the world we have created. If what we see outside our windows and on our news channels is not the world we want to live in, it may be time to consider a change. What if every person made one small personal change? What rewards might we reap for our efforts? What might the world look like in a month, a year, a decade, or a century?
Breaking the Habit
No habit is broken overnight. When trying to break the lying habit, many tend to become angry at themselves for not instantly being able to kick the inclination. After all, it’s not like smoking where there is an addiction to be broken, right? Actually, there may be. Studies have shown lying can be just addictive as a substance. Lying is the same as any other habit, and just like any other habit, one of the worst choices anyone can make is to expect perfection overnight — it leads to giving up and deciding it was foolish to try in the first place. Just like any other habit, it will take some time to break a habit to lie.
Begin by eliminating three lies per week. Three times in one week, when you are about to speak an untruth, choose to tell the truth instead. Later, write each instance down (no one needs to see this but you). At the end of a month, grant yourself a reward for your hard work. It might be anything from a nice dinner out to a new pair of jeans.
After a month, eliminate three more lies per week. At this point in kicking the habit, you will probably be far more honest than most people around you. Write down how you feel about yourself. Proud? Hopeful? Then write down how your life has changed, what new people have come into your life, and what opportunities have come your way. Documenting your new life is important, and so is giving yourself a pat on the back for making a change many cannot.
While lying may provide some temporary advantages, long-term growth comes from choosing to be honest and compassionate with our words. In a world that becomes more dishonest by the day, practicing honesty is both an act of rebellion and a force for good.