UNITED STATES—Before we can consider why people lie, we must consider and agree upon what a lie is. Being called a liar is a serious charge. It is one that impunes one’s character and motives. Being called a liar when you believe yourself innocent is heartbreaking. Being called a liar when you know that you have lied feels like a serious threat.
What is a lie? Cambridge Dictionary of American English (CDAE) says that to lie is to speak falsely, or to to say something that is not true in order to deceive. It further says that to deceive is to persuade someone that something false is the truth.
So, why would someone want to fool anyone into thinking that a thing that is false is in fact true? I am reminded of Bill Cosby’s anecdote about his 3 year old daughter who scaled the kitchen counter and the refrigerator to take a cookie from the cookie jar. When caught, she immediately lied, saying “I get a cookie for you!” She was afraid of receiving a punishment for doing something wrong and tried to make that discreditable act creditable by lying about her motives. The result she wanted was to not receive the punishment she deserved. We often lie out of a fear for consequences.
And it doesn’t really matter what we have done. We may be entirely innocent of any wrong. We know that often another person coming upon us out of the sequence of our experience and from an entirely different perspective may understand the thing we are doing entirely differently from our understanding. They may think badly of us because they make assumptions or misinterpret what we are doing. Or we may be genuinely guilty of doing something discreditable.
Regardless of our guilt or innocence, we prevaricate (a $3 word CDAE says is to avoid telling the truth). We sidestep behind a lie, or a half truth, in hopes of achieving a different outcome than the one which we fear may result. This is unfortunate, as often the thing we fear wasn’t going to come anyway and we have just risked the real consequence of being perceived as dishonest in order to avoid an entirely imaginary consequence.
Some people do this more and some do it less. Once you begin to structure this habit into your daily discourse and relations with people, it becomes as easy as a smile or a hair flip. It can even become second nature (CDAE something that is so familiar that you can do it easily without needing to think very much about it). That is a problem. It is a problem because other people don’t like being lied to and even if you are usually very good at it, the discovery of your lies is eventually inevitable and can have some really big consequences.
Like many other patterns of thought, this kind of thinking may be learned or merely a habit. Perhaps people who habitually lie also habitually avoid thinking of the eventual consequences of their lies. Perhaps they enable their own deception by avoiding any contemplation of the harm they cause.
Because lying does do harm. In taking the step to shift the consequence from oneself, one invariably makes a consequence for someone else, typically, but not always, the lyee. Time to examine cases. A man and a women are at the beach together. He says, “I am going to the house, I’ll be right back.” When he says this, he does mean it. When he gets to the house, he discovers how nice it is there and finds excuses to stay there all alone for a bit. He is selfish. He is making a lie by his conduct because he promised to return right away. If there was any real objective reason for him not keeping his promise, that would be fine, but there isn’t. More than an hour later, he returns to the beach and the woman he made the promise to, says “What took you so long?” or “Well, you finally decided to come back!” or any comparable response to his obvious duplicity. The man pretends ignorance at first, then proclaims innocence, and finally resorts to an outright lie “I wasn’t gone long.”
He has been selfish and then, in order to avoid the admission of the fact of his misdeed, and some alleged punishment (consequence), he tries to shift the blame for this bad feeling onto her. This is not because he wishes her harm in any way. It is not because he is evil or horrible. He’s just acted like a three year old at the cookie jar and he doesn’t want the consequences. She gets the consequence. She knows he is lying. She knows that he doesn’t trust her, does not respect her, and does not value her sufficiently to refrain from deception. His rejection of consequences has consequences for her, way out of all proportion to his actually intentional desire: to sweep his lapse of consideration into the oblivion of the past. The really dumb part, of course, is that he was the one who said that he would be “right back.” He set up the entire situation, failed to keep his word, lied about what he had done, and, possibly, even managed to feel that he had been treated badly because he had been made to defend himself with a lie.
It is a kind of insanity really. Most of us have heard the definition of insanity that says when a person continually does things with a known result, in the sincere expectation of a different result, they are insane. Liars do this constantly. They do it, in part, because there is only a tiny thin hair of difference between lying to someone else and lying to yourself. And because you know everything about yourself, you can lie so much better to yourself than you can to anyone else.
One of the common lies liars tell themselves all the time is that the bad consequences they inevitable encounter from their lying are the fault of the people they lied to. They actually get to resent the people who have discovered their lies. They are hurt by their own lies and they blame the people they hurt. It is a classic sleight of hand trick really.
Why didn’t the man, on returning to the beach just say “I’m sorry, it was so nice at the house, I wanted to stay for a bit and I stayed too long.” He still lied by his actions, he broke a casual promise, but he did not compound his action to another order of magnitude by lying about what he had done. One of the worst and most common lies is the pretense of innocence. It causes a tremendous amount of ill-will on this planet.
OK, so maybe you see yourself in this liar’s coat, at least sometimes, most of us do. What can you do about it to prevent yourself from lying the next time an opportunity comes up? Well, you need to see past the moment. You have to stop, look and listen when you feel defensive, when lying seems like the best thing to do. Stop and ask yourself, “what is happening?” You felt free as a bird and satisfied with the universe and the other person attacked you out of the blue. You know this person is not prone to irrational attacks for no reason. Do not react. Look at what has just happened. Trace it back in your mind. If you’re still feeling yourself an injured innocent party, ask for clarification nicely and listen to everything that is said to you.
And be aware that your avoidance of consequence is like stepping out from under a falling weight and pushing someone else under it. Do you really need to avoid this so much that you really want to hurt the other person? Calm down. There is almost no circumstance where the real consequences are mitigated in the long run by lying in the short run. Granted that this is so, think deep, understand and accept that lying is a failed long term strategy.
When you look back over all the lies you have told, in an unsuccessful campaign of, mostly imaginary, punishment avoidance, you may feel really stupid. And you will be right. But there is only one thing that makes a stupid action worse: continuing to act stupid. You can stop, we all can. It is hard to overcome the habits and behavior patterns of a lifetime. But it’s like being an alcoholic: you only have to not lie one day at a time. It gets easier. It gets better.
By Henry Meyerding