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The Truth About Lying

Diogenes seeking an honest man (18th century painting by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein)

When asked why he went around with a lamp in broad daylight, the famed Greek

philosopher, Diogenes, confessed, "I am looking for an honest man."


How honest are you? Can you be trusted? Can you keep a secret?

You might recall that in last month’s blog, I exulted my grandmother’s pies, and how she encouraged her grandchildren to happily consume them before dinner.

That same grandmother lied to scare me into behaving. She did that by referencing “the boogie man,” whom she described as a green creature who hid under my bed at night to make sure I settled down. By the time I heard her litany of terrible things the boogie man would do to me if I didn’t go to sleep, my blankets were pulled over my head, and I somehow shivered myself into a forced slumber.

My grandmother was a good-hearted person, who lied.

I see that same tendency in me. And my grandmother and I are not alone.

Not long ago, a friend asked if she could join me at a dinner I had planned with other friends. I said, “Sure!” I lied. In my mind I was clear I did not want her to attend, but I automatically said yes to avoid any awkwardness. I didn’t have the courage to hold steady in the face of her possible disappointment or anger.

A client of mine found herself in a similar situation. She told me she was upset at a neighbor who called her bluff. She had issued a general offhand invitation – “Let’s definitely plan on lunch sometime soon” – without offering any specifics. A few weeks later, she received an email from the neighbor, saying, “Give me a weekday date when you are available for lunch, anytime between now and December.”

My client was upset that the neighbor pinned her down. It turns out she had neither the intention nor the desire to share a lunch with that neighbor, but her invitation conveyed the opposite.

A VP of Human Resources I know told me she had asked to speak privately with one of the company’s leadership team members about his “offensive body odor,” a topic of whispered conversation around the office for months. During their meeting, she said to the man, “Others have come to me about this, I haven’t noticed it myself.”

She lied. As a member of the team, she not only was aware of her colleague’s body odor, she had actually initiated conversations with others about the problem.

Do all of us tell lies?

There has been an assumption for a long time that lying is common, says Timothy Levine, Ph.D., who leads deception research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham funded by the Department of Justice and the National Science Foundation.

Levine’s research has found that all people lie, but some more than others.

“Most lies are told by a few prolific liars,” Levine says.

The rest of us lie only occasionally – for the sake of convenience, to protect against possible harm to others, to avoid the discomfort of telling the truth, or to look smarter, or more accomplished, caring, or upstanding than we are.

Not all lies are equal of course. Saying I like your new haircut when I could care less about it is a different kind of lie than padding a time sheet to increase income, or claiming that climate change is a hoax.

Most of us believe that lying is wrong, and we teach our children the same. But that’s just a general guideline. What about the exceptions, when lying is justified?

For example, surprise parties usually involve lying. Exaggerated praise might at times serve a purpose, though it tells a lie.

Sometimes, taking the moral high road requires lying. Would you lie to a raging husband at your door, inquiring whether his abused spouse is inside? When the family of a person killed in a tragic accident asks if the victim suffered, should the doctor tell them the unsoftened truth?

But the trickiest lies are those we tell ourselves, about ourselves.

Half-truths about self slip easily off the tongue: “I’m innocent,” “I’m dysfunctional,” “I wasn’t speeding,” “It’s not my fault,” “I’m not racist,” and countless other subjective claims that might or might not be as accurate as they sound.

We both flatter ourselves and cut ourselves down in our lack of honesty. Our self-evaluations often reveal exaggerated positivity, the “rose-colored glasses” that blind us to our shadow sides – or magnified negativity – the many versions of “I’m a mess” that ignore what’s going well.

We say what we’d like to believe, more than what is accurate. We make up stories about ourselves, and treat the stories as facts.

Jonathan Haidt, a Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU put it this way:

“The storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it cannot.”


Examining our own honesty and dishonesty requires courage and discernment.

How do I assess my own truth-telling, without kidding myself?

How can I reduce my tendency to lie in the face of discomfort?

What justifies a lie?

These are big questions. While you wrestle with those, if anyone asks, “Are you honest?” “Can you be trusted?” “Can you keep a secret?” Consider giving them an honest response:



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